Tad Spurgeon oil paintings


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sound practice
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putty medium
just oil
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the maze

The modern art supply store, online or in person, has become a complex labyrinth of possibilities unheard of until recently. The proliferation of products and gadgets is often overwhelming. For the purchaser, wending one's way successfully through so much creative redundancy becomes an art in itself. In some ways, this is marvelously inventive and democratic: there are no guild secrets, anyone can procure potential to their heart's content; become, in an hour, an artist. But, as with all forms of commercialism, there are in fact secrets about what actually works and what doesn't, and significant buyer anxiety can lurk in the shadows. This is in fact the most basic contemporary version of the craft: how to avoid poor materials and wasting money.
      In spite of being bludgeoned nearly senseless by volume and variety, common sense may well rally and ask, “Does painting really require all those colours, all those brushes, that easel that looks like something out of a science fiction movie?” A recent catalogue of over five hundred pages featured twenty-eight different brands of oil paint alone, many of them in over a hundred different colours. One brand even proclaims that this maniacal variety makes for much faster painting through less mixing. Is all this complexity necessary, or helpful? What makes faster better? The assumption that quality time is at this point non-existent may be psychologically clever marketing, but this does not make it so. Picture the puzzled look on Rembrandt's face as he turns the pages, or wanders slowly up and down the aisles: This is painting? Some of what is available is harmless and fun, but perhaps three-quarters of any given store or catalogue is unnecessary or even – as has been so often the case with mediums – detrimental. There are still no professional standards, and, continuing a long and dubious tradition, manufacturers can and do make spurious claims for materials. There is a major hobbyist market, and commercial materials tend to be good enough for the short run. But, oil painting has always been about the long run, and deserves a more reliable definition of quality. Be forewarned about mainstream commercial materials in general, establishing actual quality is what one's own tests are for. Things change in the land of commerce; just because a manufacturer's paint was great a century ago when it was a small, committed enterprise, does not mean it is great today when they are a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Be especially dubious when a commercial medium is labeled “non-yellowing,” or conspicuously uses the name of a well known older painter. A small, dedicated manufacturer may be doing a better job, but there are many variables in this situation: genuinely better paint would be made with more pigment and higher quality oil and be genuinely more expensive. With regard to tubed paint especially, consumer expectations make departing from the limitations of the standard, “deliciously buttery” formula difficult. Similarly, the quality of the oil in use is a prisoner of what the marketplace will bear. Does this paint bear any relation in working qualities to the pigment-rich paint of the Impressionists, let alone the handmade paint of the 17th century? To make a successful oil painting, very few materials are actually necessary:

  1. Something to paint on: prepared paper, canvas, or panel
  2. A light source, preferably daylight from the north
  3. A place to hold the painting in progress: an easel, a wall
  4. Something to paint with: brushes, a painting knife
  5. Somewhere to put the paint: a palette of some kind
  6. The paint itself: a red, a yellow, a blue, and a white
  7. A way to thin and thicken the paint: the medium
  8. A way to clean up at the end: often solvent, but can be simply soap and water, a function of the medium, not the paint
      That's all. Most of what is actually done in oil painting involves manipulating the paint to the point where it feels right to the painter. This requires understanding composition, how colour makes light and shadow, and much subsequent practice. In spite of endless commercial inventiveness with the materials, this process still cannot be purchased. It will still, however, evolve naturally through consistent practice. Keeping it as simple as possible, but no simpler, has proven fundamental to both the reliability and efficiency of the process.

older methods

Modern conservation research from sources such as The National Gallery Technical Bulletins suggests that the principles of older painting were relatively simple technically. Other ingredients such as resin or egg are used in moderation, and not globally. The search for the "lost secret" begins in the late 18th, early 19th century when commercial materials begin to dominate. This research typically concludes that a resin is the lost secret, because that's what these researchers saw. The lost secret could just as easily be an oil that behaves like a resin, but this oil is only available through hand-refining methods. The medium becomes focal when the paint and oil have become generic. The single most important thing to keep in mind is that older methods are not accessible via the rules of the modern method. These rules are based on the behavior and limitations of commercial oils and the materials based on them, making the systems too different for any kind of functional dialogue. Older methods were created in a different type of time, with a different attitude towards the act of painting. As such, the majority of conjecture about them has occurred in a frame of reference that effectively excludes their basic constituents.

the actual secrets: a pdf series

       For centuries there has been intense speculation about the materials and methods used in older painting. This has often focused on the concept of the "lost secret." Analyzing older painting at the molecular level, modern technical art history has now told us a different story. What do the actual secrets of older painting now appear to be?

      The unique rheology of Hand Refined Linseed Oil.

      The nuanced use of a limited palette through Optical Colour Separation.

      The fascinating technique of Oil to Oil Thixotropy.

the oil

Modern oils have become better than oil from the earlier 20th century. Especially with regard to commercial linseed oil from this earlier period, significant darkening was a given. But commercial linseed oil sacrifices both drying potential and certain rheological possibilities to the refining process. This is because no manufacturer, large or small, refines their own oil specifically for painting. All oil used in commercial paint has been refined by a process designed to maximize the shelf life of an edible oil, i.e., to create an oil that oxidizes slowly. Because the oil is the most important technical component of the painting, this difference can be relevant. Especially in the context of older technique, oil refined for painting, as was originally done by painters, can be made to oxidize much more quickly, even without lead. As it polymerizes, it will do things rheologically that no commercially refined oil can do. More information about processing the oil is here.

the best method

Lots of people want to know the "best" way to paint. Much of this is, of course, personal: art history defines many different, and relatively contradictory, paths to the same goal. After almost a decade of active research into the materials, the method of making paintings I feel best about uses the putty medium on panels. This medium is based on the finding of various forms of calcium carbonate in the work of 17th century painters such as Rembrandt, Velasquez, or Vermeer. This proven method allows for an incredible variety of stable techniques and a solvent-free work environment. It can also be used on stretched canvas but a greater variety of technical options are available on panels. The putty medium can be used to create a bridge via a strong OM style "blank" paint to strengthen relatively weak modern paint. However, a putty is only as good as the oil involved. Therefore, even when using this bridge, the most functional difference is provided by a high quality oil. Commercial pre-polymerized oil can be used to provide the saturating element, but these are all leveling with the exception of genuine sun oil, which is always quite expensive unless homemade. Homemade sun oil remains the most reliable medium ingredient. It is non-yellowing, saturating even in small amounts, can be used in smooth or broken surface styles, and is quick-drying.

commercial paint

Many painters are interested in the best commercial paint. A great deal of money is spent by larger companies to create an impression of quality that is not necessarily in the tube itself. This is a battlefield that smaller companies have entered as well in terms of vying for a reputation for quality. It is important to look through the various marketing strategies and look for the company that is giving out the most accurate information about what it is actually putting into the tube. "Proprietary" colours, for example, mixtures of pigments with alluring names, are unnecessary and tend to mask areas where pigments of lesser quality are being used. Chalk in paint is sometimes spoken of as an "adulterant," but it is important to realize that chalk is found in the work of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Chardin, among others. As a stabilizer, chalk is certainly preferable to aluminum stearate. The oldest privately owned company making paint now is Blockx. They have maintained a relatively small number of colours with extremely high quality pigments. As a company, they are too Old World to have the most sizzle, but I doubt that you will find a larger steak. Their earth colours are incomparable. There are smaller companies now that are making an effort to create paint with minimal additives. This is a positive development, and can be researched in the forums, but where Blockx shines is in the experience of five generations, their longstanding commitment to the best pigments, and in the integrity implicit in their unwillingness to "pad" their line-up with extraneous colours simply to cause more purchasing from unwary painters.

sound practice

But there are other functional ways of working as well. Egg can be introduced into the system on panels in small amounts. Small amounts of soft resin such as damar or larch balsam can be introduced on panels or stretched canvas. An overview of quality ways of working is on the page called sound practice.

the medium

The modern emphasis on the medium is a result of the standardization of relatively lean paint by commerce. If the paint is handmade, its qualities can be adjusted at this level in ways that cannot be done within the limitations of commerce. Handmade paint provides a world of possibilities because the painter has direct control of the quality and rheology of the oil used. The putty medium can be made in many varieties and these are also effective at transforming commercial paint. The highest quality, most reliable finishing (i.e. saturating) medium begins with cold-pressed oil that has been refined, then thickened. Sun oil is traditional for this, but some sun oils being sold now are in fact burnt plate oil. Genuine sun oil is always pale, with a sharp, not toasted, smell, and dries quickly. The thickening process can also be done in the studio if the layer of oil is kept thin, the surface area exposed large, as in a glass baking tray. This takes longer, but is less labor and the time is not an issue in practice. An aquarium pump can also be used to oxygenate an oil.


Solvent is often considered a necessary aspect of oil painting. But this is not true. Solvent is simply part of consensus 20th century technique. Solvent use is unnecessary and can lead to significant long term health issues. For a PDF file detailing solvent-free methods of traditional oil painting, click here.


Beeswax is often recommended as an addition to a medium or to handmade paint in small amounts, five percent is common. Beeswax does act as a natural emulsifier but also creates a softer paint film with less optical depth. Beeswax is a fine ingredient in small amounts, and can be used in larger amounts on panels. But it provides an example of an area where something might work with one type of method but not with another: beeswax was not part of older painting practice in terms of the literature and no older -- 15th to 17th century -- oil paint film that has been analyzed contains beeswax to my knowledge. Wehlte asnd Doerner discuss the medieval saponified wax tempera called cerra colla, a paint which is similar in look to gouache.


While there has been much creative literary detective work designed to show that a given resin is the fabled magic trick of older practice, they are never found globally in the work of any major painter until the 19th century. Copal varnish, for example, was often part of Pre-Raphaelite technique, but on the other hand, no resin has been found in any Impressionist painting. All resins oxidize in contact with atmospheric oxygen, making all mediums made with resins darken over time. Two questions become important here: how much will this affect the colour scheme in question, and how much will the resin also become brittle, potentially creating cracks in the paint film over time. The simplest approach to resins is to avoid them, making one less thing that can go awry over time. The next best approach is to use as little as possible. This means using the resin component to alter the rheology of the paint, not to provide the saturating element. It is always safest to have the saturating element provided in the work by a high quality thickened oil.


Mastic is an inherently brittle resin which yellows significantly over time. It's use as a varnish on older paintings was responsible for the preference for "gallery glow" which dominated early 19th century connoisseurship in England. It's use as a medium is controversial, especially in the gel form sometimes called "meglip," or Maroger Medium. These mediums are late 17th century in origin, possibly beginning in Venice. They come into major use in the 19th century, especially in England, and can make for facile and charismatic painting. While some painters have used a mastic gel without great long term issues, many others have not. Mastic has not been found in the corpus of National Gallery Technical Bulletin research as the medium of any older painter of renown. The wisest thing is to avoid mastic. Using it is, to quote Volpato, gaming with Fortune.


Concerning the materials, there are many different levels of experience and understanding within the craft, and, as such, many different types or compartments of that mercurial commodity, truth. The truth of modern science with regard to the materials and the truth of a working 17th Century painter are two very different things. In spite of a century of quantum physics, and its governing premise that the behavior of matter is based on probabilities, not certainties, the laboratory tends towards the black and white of analytical abstraction, the working painter towards a conditional, experiential model with many shades of gray. It is always best to be wary of the often selective evidence presented by someone who is selling something, but especially -- given the current level of commercial integrity -- if this evidence is touted as "scientific" and therefore intrinsically beyond reasonable doubt. It is very easy, in a culture that considers integrity optional, to skew the data, or tell half the story. No manufacturer, large or small, wants painters investigating the materials and asking potentially embarrassing questions about origin, quality, or actual identity. An incredible amount of misleading information is presented about linseed oil, for example, without a functional definition of the term. Limestone is sold as chalk, when the behavior of these two materials is quite different. Actual science does exist, and means well, but it often makes the error of equating dissection and comprehension. However, in life, as in art, the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. While actual science can provide helpful guidelines, is not possible to substitute rules for experience with the materials. Rules may work to keep Painting 101 on track, but the craft is capable of more to a degree that is virtually infinite. It is not possible for science to actually be "unbiased," since it is in the hands of human beings. More enlightened scientists are well aware that all conclusions are conditional, and steer clear of the limitations of personal or empirical ideology. The practitioners of technical art history need to be both subtle and detached in their approach to painting materials, and, as a result,the version of science from within this discipline – Joyce Townsend, Leslie Carlyle, Jaap Boon, the National Gallery Technical Bulletin group, etc. – is the most reliable for working painters.

For further information on technique or a specific painting please contact tadspurgeon@gmail.com
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