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HungryGuy's avatar

How can I mix my own paints like the old Dutch masters?

Asked by HungryGuy (16034points) May 1st, 2011

I know that the old Dutch masters like Vermeer, Rembrandt, etc. didn’t just drive down to the Craft Shop to buy their oil paints in disposable tubes. They had to shop around to find oil and the various pigments to mix together to make their own paint. If I wanted to exactly reproduce their tools and supplies of their period, what type of oil would I need (I assume that petroleum based oil didn’t exist yet, so it would have had to be vegetable oil or animal oil)? And what materials did they use for pigments, and where did they get them from?

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13 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Here is a discussion of the techniques needed.

gailcalled's avatar

I have a college classmate who has made a lucrative retirement hobby of learning the techniques that Rembrandt and the like used pigments. I went to one of her workshops at Smith College (sponsered jointly by the chemistry and the art dept.) and watched her show us how Rembrandt painted originally in shades and tones of black, gray and white. Then he used glazes to produce the colours and make the expensive pigments last longer.

See Northern Light Studio for the workshops offered.

And here are dozens of resources
for historic materials and techniques.

And here the abstract for the paper (with photos) on Rembrandt and his used of burnt plate oil

I can see myself spending several weeks here learning about grinding lapis lazuli for blue and dried bugs for red. Plus, making linen canvas, brushes, easels, palettes in the style of Rembrandt. Also, home-make ink from iron gall and goose quill pens.

Jeruba's avatar

If I’m not mistaken, some of the pigments came from extremely costly materials such as finely ground gemstones. This novel by Daniel Silva offers a very interesting incidental lesson in pigments, paint mixing, and art restoring.

janbb's avatar

I took a lesson once from a French artist who made icons using medieval techniques – particularly egg tempera. We mixed egg yolk and another medium (perhaps linseed oil) with . ground up minerals to make the paints. As @Jeruba say, some of the minerals, such as lapis, are very costly – we only got to use a bit of blue!

HungryGuy's avatar

That’s interesting. I’d heard that the Dutch masters were fairly poor in their day. Their art didn’t become worth a fortune until after they died. I wonder how they afforded the expensive pigments.

janbb's avatar

There are several novels written about Old Masters. I remember one that talked a lot about mixing the paints about an English painter – but unfortunately not the title or author. **The Girl with a Pearl Earring* by Tracey Chevalier talks about Vermeer and his methods, although I don’t specifically remember if it talks about the mixing of the paints. It might.

Jeruba's avatar

The 2003 movie Girl with a Pearl Earring (based on the novel ^^) has some scenes of Vermeer mixing pigments. (I recommend the movie, by the way.)

I read a novel that contained a great deal of detail on the art of restoration, including particulars about the treatment of canvas, the finishes, etc. I think the focal painting was by Mantegna in that one, but I don’t remember the title. It was 4 or 5 years ago that I read it, and then I gave it away.

I imagine that painters who had wealthy patrons or lucrative commissions had more freedom of choice in their pigments.

gailcalled's avatar

Using the pigments as glazes over the underpainting was the common technique to cut expenses.

Here’s how Vermeer did it Glazes

augustlan's avatar

@Jeruba If it’s the one I’m thinking of, you gave it to me, and the painting was done by Rembrandt. It was a great book! The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva.

Jeruba's avatar

No, @augustlan, different book. I cited the Silva novel above. The one I’m failing to remember entailed a very elaborate account of the restoration of a painting and a protracted search for the provenance of an old Italian master that was (I think) found hanging in a bar. I gave it away to someone I worked with.

augustlan's avatar

Oops! Sorry. :)

janbb's avatar

And I can’t remember the one I read that talked a lot about mixing paints, possibly by a woman artist. I think it was set in the time of Holbein and Henry the 8th.

Jeruba's avatar

I found it. It was The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece—and not a novel! The story was so engagingly told that I remembered it as fiction.

So—Caravaggio and not Mantegna. Not exactly close, but—oh, well, I did find it.

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