Business Insider is an American website that publishes news on financial and business topics. They asked us why oil paint is so expensive for their video series So Expensive. In this post I share the main points that we discussed and a few additional facts about oil paint to complement their video.
Why is Oil Paint so Expensive?
What is oil paint made of?
—Pigment: ground particles of organic, mineral or synthetic substances.
—Drying Oil: Typically refined Linseed oil. Drying oils undergo a chemical reaction when exposed to air which causes them to harden. Safflower, Walnut and Poppy oils are less yellow than Linseed oil and are often used for paler colours, but take longer to harden than Linseed oil.
Can you tell me a little about the properties of oil paint that make it different to other paints (acrylic etc)?
—The characteristics of a paint are largely down to its binder.
—Oil has a drying oil binder.
—Watercolour has gum arabic, acrylic is bound with a polymer resin.
—Pastels are bound with wax or a clay binder.
The Properties of Oil Paint:
—The oil binder makes the colours super luscious, as well as slow drying.
—There’s very little colour shift from wet to dry (watercolour lightens, acrylic darkens).
—You have more control over its opacity/ transparency in comparison to watercolour.
—It looks textural with a subtle sheen, whereas, some cheaper acrylic can have a glossy, plastic-like look at times.
—It doesn’t fall off the substrate like pastel.
—The use of oil solvents is required unless you are using water mixable oil paint.
—Fat-over-lean: fatter paint (with more oil) needs to go over leaner layers to prevent cracking, due to the layers drying at different rates. The more fat, the slower the drying, the less fat, the quicker the drying.
—Layering, the long drying time means pieces can be reworked over months or even years and blending is easier for a greater time than other mediums, rich pigment glazes and impasto textured work.
What are the characteristics of a good paint?
—High pigment loading of a quality pigment.
—A good paint demonstrates the individual pigment characteristics rather than using other ingredients to level out qualities.
—Lightfastness (tests having been done over a long period).
—Reliability—therefore thorough quality control checks implemented by the manufacturer.
Why is oil paint so well-loved, what makes it special as a material?
—Oil paints have a richness that is unparalleled.
—It has an expressive texture.
—Oil paint is slow drying which means colour can be blended on the support and work can be changed for longer than with any other medium. Creating layers allows for a sculptural quality: the history of the process gives depth to the surface.
—Oil paint dries by oxidation, not evaporation, and is usually dry to the touch within a span of two weeks (some colours dry within days) allowing you to work for much longer on the same area.
—The historical context makes it desirable, it’s been the main painting medium since the 15th Century in Europe and is longlasting and durable.
Do you know anything about the pigments used in these paints?
—Understanding pigments is one of the most fascinating parts of writing about paints as they literally make the colour.
—Paint names are historical and tell you where the paint came from, who invented it with some (Hooker’s green) or the process it is made with.
—Many modern colours are called ‘hues’. These replicate a traditional colour that had unwanted qualities (for instance will fade), or is no longer available because it’s unethical, toxic or too expensive.
—French Ultramarine for instance is the name given a synthetic version of Ultramarine invented in France which was originally made from Lapis Lazuli – the name ultramarine come from the latin ultramarinus, literally meaning “beyond the sea”. This was because originally most ultramarine was imported to Europe from mines in Afghanistan. It’s called French Ultramarine because the synthetic version was discovered by a French chemist in 1826.
—Another good example of a paint that is no longer used but whose replications are popular is Emerald Green (named after it’s bright jewel-like colour). This colour was originally made from arsenic and copper and was incredibly popular with the Impressionists as its a bright opaque green that’s easy to modify, however after several deaths due to its toxicity, it was taken out of production. Most oil ranges now have a modern Emerald Green Hue made up of a blend of pigments designed to replicate the shade.
—A lot of our modern colour names come from a shortening of their chemical name, for instance, Phthalo blue comes from phthalocyanine. In fact, 25% of all artificial organic pigments are phthalocyanine derivatives
Oil paint has been used for hundreds of years, is there a type of painting that it’s best suited for?
—Acrylic was only invented in the 1940s and watercolour painting only really gained a foothold in Western art during the 18th century, particularly in England. Whereas, oil paint was first used for Buddhist paintings by painters in central and western Afghanistan sometime between the fifth and tenth centuries, and what we think of as traditional oil paints first appeared in Europe in the 12th century, becoming very popular by the early 15th century and starting to replace the older medium of tempera paints.
—Since then it’s been seen as the most painterly medium for all types of paintings that were intended to last (in the Western world at least), so most major art movements from this point up to the 1950s used oil paint as their main medium.
—From early Dutch painters, the Italian Renaissance and the Impressionists through to Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Hyperrealism, oil paint can be found at the core of very different artists’ practices and styles.
What’s the difference between a higher quality of oil paint and a cheaper one? Does the drying time or amount of pigment change?
—The main difference is pigment quality and content.
—In more expensive paints there will be a high concentration of pigment and around 75% compared to a cheaper one having as little as 23%.
—Also, you can buy inexpensive pigments or expensive ones, the expensive will be more intense. You’re buying ingredients, some are more expensive than others, and some are cheaper and will not perform in the same way. Imagine the difference between battery farmed eggs and free-range, they’re both eggs but one will be more likely to have a brighter yolk, a stronger taste and might even have a double yolk.
—Processing also makes a difference, some pigment may not be ground to the optimum pigment particle size to give the maximum radiance.
—In a professional paint, the rest of the paint contents will be made up of the correct amount of drying oil, probably a refined linseed oil, and maybe a tiny amount of an additive like magnesium or aluminium stearate to prevent pigment clumping.
—In cheaper / lower grade paints they include blanc fixe – a colourless pigment, also known as a filler, to bulk out the mixture. The cheaper a paint gets the less pigment and the more filler it contains.
—On top of this additives are included in a cheaper oil paint, such as white spirit, driers, silica and thickening agents. These control drying times and consistency and are used to make all the colours handle identically. These additives can rise to the surface of oil paintings years later and form crystals or cloudy patches on the surface- often making the paintings physically “weep”.
—With professional paints, each colour will have a different texture, consistency, sheen and drying time that is caused by the natural characteristics of the pigment.
Oil paint is an expensive material, do you know what it is that makes it so costly? (Different grades) Do certain pigments change the cost?
—Complex manufacturing process
—Cost of individual pigments
—Oil paint has a very specific grinding process, settling time and often is triple-milled. Each pigment has to be sourced and treated individually – some pigments need to be ground very finely whereas with others if you grind them too much they’ll lose their desired colour. This means each one must be specially milled correctly, nearly all professional oil paints go through a triple roller mill and each one will do a specific amount of passes usually between three and nine. This ensures the dispersion around each pigment particle is correct. The complexity of production is also increased because each pigment needs an exact ratio of oil, otherwise, it will absorb and then weep out oil later or be too dry and brittle to paint with if there is too little oil.
—Pigments come from different places so the cost of the pigment itself, how difficult it is to obtain and how much it is in demand also dramatically changes the cost.
In professional paints ranges come in series where paints made with more expensive pigments will be a higher series and cost more to buy than those made with cheaper pigments which will be a low series.
—In cheaper paint ranges there won’t be a series as most manufacturers will either use cheaper alternatives to expensive pigments (for instance cadmium yellow hues that come from syntethic azo yellow rather than genuine cadmium pigments), or will reduce the pigment ratio of those colours made from an expensive pigment to make up the cost but will end up selling a less concentrated and worse quality paint.
—The cost of individual pigments affects the cost of oil paint:
—Earth Colours are an example of cheaper pigment, so oil colours containing them will cost less.
—Earth colours tend to be the cheapest such as yellow ochre (PY43), this pigment is a natural clay earth pigment: a mixture of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand. We don’t find it hard to obtain and it’s not worth much as a raw material which is why in all ranges it will have one of the lowest series numbers. Most pigments that are referred to as “earth” pigments because they originally were dug out of the earth, although they are now almost always synthetically produced, have a quick drying time and have been used for hundreds of years. Interestingly earth pigments used to have to be matched batch by batch by eye to check whether the literal soil was the same colour and milling would have to be adjusted depending on the seam the earth was dug from.
—Cobalt is an example of an expensive pigment, so oil paints containing it will cost more.
—Cobalt blue is an expensive blue pigment made by sintering cobalt(II) oxide with alumina at 1200 °C. This is obviously technically demanding. Chemically, cobalt blue pigment is cobalt(II) oxide-aluminium oxide, or cobalt(II) aluminate, CoAl2O4. It is extremely stable and has historically been used as a colouring agent in ceramics (especially Chinese porcelain), jewellery, and paint. Cobalt blue was the primary blue pigment used in Chinese blue and white porcelain for centuries, beginning in the late 8th or early 9th century.
—This very costly and extraordinary stable pigment was discovered in its current form by Thénard in 1802. Although smalt, a pigment made from cobalt blue glass has been known at least since the Middle Ages, the cobalt blue established in the nineteenth century was a greatly improved one.
—Vincent van Gogh declared to his brother Theo, ‘Cobalt [blue] is a divine colour and there is nothing so beautiful for putting atmosphere around things…”
—It’s named comes from the German word for Goblin – Kobolt = an underground goblin due to it being mined in places it was thought mischievous spirits inhabited.
Has the paint changed over the years? Is it easier to work with/longer or shorter drying times etc?
—As technology has been developed, we have more options than ever before over how our paint behaves. This includes alkyd oils made with alkyd resin that speed up drying time (first introduced commercially in the 1960s) as well as water-mixable oils (developed in the 1980s) that have emulsifiers meaning you don’t need to use oil solvents with your oil paints but instead can use water–making for a less toxic and more easily cleanable workspace. These also dry at a far greater speed than regular oils, more like a few days rather than weeks.
—There have also been massive developments in pigment production: including new alternatives to traditional pigments and brighter colours with better handling qualities, although time is now showing us the downside of some of these, like Zinc Oxide, which forms a quite brittle paint film meaning it is prone to cracking, years after it was originally painted.
—An invention that changed artists working conditions forever was the paint tube was invented in 1841 by portrait painter John Goffe Rand. It superseded pig bladders and glass syringes as the primary tool of paint transport. Artists, or their assistants, previously ground each pigment by hand, carefully mixing the binding oil in the proper proportions, a much more drawn-out process rather than ordering a paint tube online and having it delivered to your door.