Many Art Historians believe that Oil Painting came to the West, most probably, during the Middle Ages, from Afghanistan. At first, it was used to embellish armor, predominantly, tournament and decorative shields. Until the arrival of Oil Painting, Tempera, a water based medium, was used within Europe. One of the most obvious advantages of Oil Painting, over Tempera, is, being an oil based media, it is much more durable. Therefore, this made Oil Painting more favorable and hugely popular by the end of the fifteenth century.
Primarily, Oil Painting began within Northern Europe, during the fifteenth and sixteenth century. Most specifically, in the low countries (what we know as the Netherlands). This was a time known as the Northern Renaissance, and occurred around the same time as the Italian Renaissance. However, the two developments did not, entirely, occur simultaneously and reflect each other. Primarily, this was due to cultural differences. Northern Renaissance Oil Paintings reflect the Medieval influences and heritage of the region. It was this independent culture, which separated the Northern Renaissance, from the Early Renaissance Oil Painting of Italy. However, in the beginning, during the Early Italian Renaissance, Oil Paintings produced in the Netherlands did reflect their ideals.
The Renaissance had begun in Italy, and can only be described as a ‘cultural movement’, primarily, within the Arts and Sciences. The Renaissance was a humanitarian search for intellect and understanding. Its ideals were profoundly influential, within many European countries, during the sixteenth century. Italian, Giorgio Vasari (1511 - 1574), wrote many biographies of Italian Artists and was also a Painter himself. His work is held in high regard, as is his word. Vasari believed that the invention of Oil Painting should be credited to the Northern European Artist, Jan Van Eyck. For some, this statement is a fact, and he is often referred to as the 'father of Oil Painting' Jan Van Eyck, born Johannes De Eyck, is thought by many, to have been the most accomplished Oil Painter of the Netherlands, and all of Northern Europe, during the fifteenth century. However, it is probably not so much that Van Eyck 'invented' Oil Painting, as it is true, that he was the 'master' of the technique.
It was not that Oil Paintings were not being produced in Renaissance Italy, during the fifteenth century. The famous Latin text, 'Schedula diversarum artium' is a handbook, which documents the practices of the applied Arts. It was written around 1125, by an Italian, Benedictine Monk, by the name of Theophilus Presbyter. In it, he refers to Oil Painting. Therefore, this proves, Oil Painting was not unknown within Italy, at least, as early as the eleven hundreds. However, Oil Painting was not the most usual medium for Painting. There is little doubt, the Artists of the Netherlands, particularly Jan Van Eyck, led the way. The practice of Oil Painting would then filter across Europe, to Venice. By the sixteenth century, the time of the High Renaissance, Italian Artists had fully embraced Oil Painting, reserving Tempera solely for Frescos. By then, a European Artist would rarely paint with Tempera, and the practice of Fresco Painting was not commonplace, nor practical, in Northern regions.
The 'Mona Lisa', by Leonardo Da Vinci, was produced from around 1503 to 1505. This was almost seventy years after Jan Van Eyck produced one of his most famous and accomplished Oil Paintings, 'The Arnolfini Portrait', which was in 1434. Italian Artists, Titian and Raphael produced some of the finest Renaissance Oil Paintings during the fifteen hundreds. Rubens, Rembrandt, Val and Vermeer, all are considered Oil Painting masters of the sixteenth century. Some Artists of the late nineteenth century, in particular, the Impressionists, did not use the same processes and techniques used within Renaissance Oil Painting. Up until Monet created his groundbreaking 'Impression, Sunrise', in 1872, there had never been such a drastic change, within Oil Painting processes and techniques, since it was first implemented in the West. Renaissance Oil Paintings were built 'glaze on paint', layer by layer. Today, we refer to this as the 'Traditional' or 'Classic' method. The Impressionist produced Oil Paintings using the 'Alla Prima' method. This refers to the blending of wet Oil Paints, and was far more convenient for painting outside. Something which was vitally important to the Impressionists. Some contemporary art is produced using a combination of the 'Alla Prima' and 'Traditional' Oil Painting methods. Another difference between traditional and Contemporary Oil Paintings is that they are rarely varnished. Traditional, Renaissance Oil Paintings would be allowed to dry, for around twelve months, and then varnished periodically.