What is a painting? When grappling with the concept of what a painting actually is, it seems quite simple really. For the fine art novice, it’s paint, applied to a flat, two dimensional surface, that creates a picture. Which is kind of true, if that’s as far as your interest goes. But we also know this isn’t the whole picture.
A painting is built on a foundation of the artist’s ideas, personal experience and their ability to tell a story. What follows next is their choice of medium — oil painting, watercolour painting, acrylic painting, mixed media, the list goes on! — and what that medium says about their unique style and technique. Finally, how they choose to tell their story, be it through colour, shape, line, texture or subject, gives us an idea of what they want to say through their art. Phew!
So really, paintings aren’t just a splash of paint here, a squiggly line there. How boring would that be? Let’s take a look at the history, application and varying mediums of fine art paintings to help us understand how it has shaped the world today.
A very brief history of paintings
It’s important that we start by clearing up what we mean by painting, because we understand ‘painting with a paintbrush to make a painting’ is a bit of a confusing mouthful. Here, we’re mainly going to be talking about the medium used and its finished product, not necessarily the act of painting with a paintbrush. Let’s go!
You may have already heard about the Upper Paleolithic period, where the oldest considered art forms have been discovered. These artworks, from cave paintings to clay sculpture, were created some 40,000 years ago and consisted of coloured earth pigments mixed into a liquid-based paste. Fast forward thousands of years and the act of mixing pigment with liquid to create paint hasn’t really changed in essence.
However, by the 15th century, European society began to witness an explosion of creativity, inspired particularly by Greek literature and art, giving way to the glorious period we know as the oh-so romantic Renaissance. The introduction of mixing oil (linseed specifically) to pigment, created new oil blends and encouraged further experimentation with depth and perspective (more on that below) - a far cry from the wooden relief paintings that are so synonymous with Medieval art.
Toward the mid-to-late 19th century, we again start to notice a shift in the way artists painted, moving from classical Renaissance techniques to a much more fluid take on reality and perspective. And here we say hello to the modern art movement! Fun fact: most art historians agree it was Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), that first demonstrated the pivot from classical painting conventions to modern techniques.
As the art world entered the 20th century, it’s again influenced by new ideas and technology, such as the rise of the Industrial Revolution, groundbreaking philosophy and psychiatry, as well as two world wars. Artists working throughout this time, including Picasso, Dali and Malevich to name just a few, were inspired to shake-up the status quo and challenge fine art norms through their art and paintings once again.
What is an oil painting?
In our experience, oil paintings can sometimes be regarded as more ‘classical’ or ‘traditional’ (sometimes more expensive!), even when referring to contemporary art. Our theory is that this type of thinking might have something to do with its strong ties to the Renaissance, where oil painting really gained its popularity.
In reality, historians believe that 7th century murals located in the cliffs of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, are the very first oil paintings we know of. These murals are thought to be painted by Buddhists and depicted the life of the Buddha, using mineral pigments mixed with walnut and poppy oils.
When it came to painting in Renaissance Europe, the dominant medium at the time was egg-yolk tempera, but it became clear, with new ideas and technique, that tempera just wasn’t cutting it. Oil (linseed particularly) mixed with colour pigment produced deeper saturation, while taking longer to dry, which meant the artist could keep returning to their work, adding greater control, depth and perspective to the piece over time. Oil paint really began to pay off — quite literally — as the wealthy increasingly started to commission artists to paint portraits of noble families, important figures and religious narratives.
In the following 400 years, art lovers are still in awe of the grandeur of an oil painting. And while Greek art and literature isn’t necessarily the primary focus for contemporary artists — a quick mention goes to the wonderful world of abstract painting and exactly the opposite of Renaissance realism! — painting with oil is still a largely popular and respected medium today.
What is a watercolour painting?
Watercolour paintings have a similar history to oils, in that all paintings originate from the walls of caves found in the Upper Paleolithic period. However, what we consider to be familiar or ‘classic’ watercolour paintings of calligraphy and landscape motifs on silk and paper were introduced in the Far and Middle East, preceding the new wave of watercolour techniques that began in Renaissance Europe.
Known as the father of European watercolour, Albrecht Düre, created his works throughout the mid-15th to early 16th centuries, smack-bang in the middle of the Renaissance. He’s fondly admired for his landscape paintings and botanical studies, with Great Piece of Turf (1503) regarded as a masterpiece. However, throughout this time, watercolour paintings were still primarily considered as a ‘prep’ medium — suited to a quick sketch or study — opposed to the more refined, trendier medium of oil.
The ‘English’ method of watercolour painting, introduced in the ‘Golden Age’ of watercolour, was lead by an army of Englishmen: Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, as well as the arguably most famous of English watercolourists, JMW Turner. The method of applying multiple, transparent washes of watercolour onto damp paper improved in its colour intensity and tone with each stroke. Instead of using white pigment, the paper was left unpainted to represent the shine and purity of light.
From this time, watercolour paintings cemented their importance in the art world and influenced the changing attitudes toward what a painting ‘should’ or could be.
What is an acrylic painting?
Moving forward into the 1950s and the experimental and dynamic fine art landscape, a water-based paint, which bound colour pigment with synthetic resin, was created — welcome to the 20th century, acrylic paint!
Once acrylic paintings were introduced, it enjoyed a steady rise in popularity thanks to how versatile it is. Rich in colour pigment, quick-drying and offering a range of viscosities, acrylic paint can be applied thick and textured like an oil painting on canvas, or diluted and thinly onto paper like a watercolour painting. It’s also a great option for those artist’s who prefer alternative techniques to a paintbrush — think street artists and spraypainters.
A great example of a globally recognised, 1960s acrylic painting is David Hockney’s iconic, A Bigger Splash. Hockney was one of the first contemporary artists to harness acrylic paint, which allowed for painting large areas of flat colour, then adding further detail once these expansive areas had dried (in speedy time, no less). Hockney’s use of acrylic paint complemented his highly recognisable style, which includes using vivid colour and clean lines.
So, here we are art lovers. Next time you’re asked what a painting is, make sure you do your very best to capture the whole picture. We know it’s a long story, but it’s worth telling.
But how am I supposed to choose one?
This is a great question. Now that you know a little bit about the history of different types of paintings, you're ready to boldly go forth and buy one, right? Well, maybe! But there is also this huge secret that high-end art types don't seem to like to talk about, which is that you don't actually have to know anything about art to love it. If you need a bit of guidance our curatorial team are always here to help through our Personal Shopping service, but otherwise, just jump right on in. You could start with our Editors' Picks with new collections launched weekly, check out our top 40 bestselling artists , or just have a poke around and see what you find! Happy hunting!
Hero image credit: Anna Pepe