Before the great discovery of oil painting, the painters worked in “tempera,” or distemper. The discovery of oil painting was due to the genius of two brothers, Hubert and John Van Eyck.
Before the great discovery of oil painting, the painters worked in “tempera,” or distemper; that is to say, their colours, ground in water, were mixed with some sort of thin glue or with yolk of egg beaten up with vinegar. They had not the great range of colours which are at the command of the modern artist, and did not know the art of oil painting.
The discovery of oil painting was not made in Italy, but in the Netherlands, and was due to the genius of two brothers, Hubert and John Van Eyck.
Hubert was born about 1365; his younger brother, John, in 1385. these two men worked the greatest revolution in painting that the world has ever seen, but it is a sad fact that we know hardly anything about their lives or doings. There was no one to chronicle the lives of the Van Eycks, or tell us how they made the discovery which has meant so much to art.
The only story that remains to us, and we do not know whether it is true or a legend, is that John Van Eyck one day finished a picture, and after varnishing it with great care put it out in the sun to dry. When he came back he discovered, to his disgust, that the heat had cracked and ruined his picture. This started him on a series of experiments to find colours which should be more lasting, and after trying many things he discovered that linseed oil and oil of nuts dried more quickly than anything else, and that colours mixed with these oils were more brilliant than those blended with tempera, and – more than that – were proof against water.
So came about the discovery of painting in oil, a discovery which rapidly spread to Italy, Germany, and other parts of Europe.