A History of Artist’s Materials: European Painting 1400-1900

The number of different materials that go into a single work of art can be extraordinary – animal hide glue, concoctions of linseed oil and lead monoxide, pigments imported from far and wide, plant-based resins, eggs, marble dust. Indeed, it is often a struggle for conservators to identify exactly what substances they are trying to care for! But the history of artist’s materials also explains much about how the great artists of yesteryear went about their work, why it looks like it does today, and how styles changed with the advent of new materials and new technologies.


  • This class will be delivered online via the online platform Zoom.
  • This course requires students to have an email, a reliable internet connection, a microphone/speakers and access to a tablet, smartphone or computer.


  • Ball, Philip. Bright Earth: The invention of colour. Vintage, 2008.
  • Ceninni, Cennino. The Craftsman’s Handbook: Il libro dell’arte. Trans. Daniel V. Thompson Jr. Dover Publications, 1954.
  • Wallert, Arie and Erma Hermans, (eds.). Historical Painting Techniques, Materials and Studio Practice. The Getty Conservation Trust, 1996.
  • Mayer, Ralph. The Artists Handbook of Materials and Techniques. Faber and Faber, 1930.
  • Davies, Dan and Jan Green (eds). Methods and Materials of Northern European Painting in the National Gallery 1400-1550. National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol 18, 1997.
  • Fuga, Antonella. Artists materials and techniques, J. Paul Getty Trust, 2007.
  • Kirby, Jo., Suzie Nash and Joanna Cannon. Trade in Artist’s Materials: Markets and Commerce in Europe to 1700, Archetype Publications, 2010.
  • www.naturalpigments.com/artists-materials/ - Generally useful, and other resources available


  • How did they do that?: Knowledge of materials and what they do was often handed down from master to apprentice in the Renaissance and artists' creativity often led to experimentation with new materials and techniques. Explore the artist’s tool kit, and how materials changed across the centuries, from Jan van Eyck to Titian, from Velasquez to Van Gogh.
  • Supports: Whether it’s the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a small icon for domestic use, a great battle on canvas, or a miniature on paper or vellum, a work’s success begins with the preparation of a surface to support the image. Get to know how different surfaces were prepared for painting in a bygone era, the sometimes months of preparation required, and the mechanical and chemical relationships going on between fabrics, glues and grounds.
  • Pigments: We’re awash with colour today, and it might be hard to imagine how artists from Raphael to Monet produced such a range and brightness of colour with far fewer pigments available to them than one sees in a Dulux catalogue. Discover the history of colours, the odd things they’re sometimes made from, and the global networks that made them available.
  • Media: Egg yolk, linseed oil, walnut oil, poppyseed oil, wax, litharge, marble dust, chalk dust, spike oil made from lavender, gum Arabic, turpentine, balsalm, humble water, damarra, amber. These are just a few of the things that have been mixed with pigment to make a paint. Get to know what media do and how they are used to create different effects in great masterpieces.
  • When things go wrong: When you walk around a less well-funded gallery of Old Masters, the dominant colour is brown. Sometimes this is the varnish, at other times it’s an unexpected chemical reaction – Van Dyck, for example, was once known for the liveliness of his greens, but now they’re almost nowhere. Explore some of the great tragedies of experimentation from Da Vinci to Joshua Reynolds, and the accidents of time, such as what 19th-century gaslights did to private collections.
  • From artisanal to industrial colour: As chemistry took leaps and bounds in the 18th and 19th centuries, colour makers were quick to find a way to make colour available to artists and public alike: cobalt blues, cadmium reds and yellows, zincs and titaniums. Naturally-occurring compounds were artificially made on a never-before-seen scale. The walls at home became brighter, our clothes more bold. But what has this done to art? Is it less poisonous and more durable than before?

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Describe the basic materials used by artists from the Renaissance to the modern age.
  2. Identify the materials used by the Old Masters.
  3. Discuss the methods and techniques used by artists and how this affects what we see today.
  4. Analyse the use of colour and texture in European paintings from 1400-1900.
  5. Discuss the impact of trade and technology on art.
$110 Limited / $99

<p>The number of different materials that go into a single work of art can be extraordinary – animal hide glue, concoctions of linseed oil and lead monoxide, pigments imported from far and wide,

24 Jul

Interested in this course but can't attend? Please join the waiting list by clicking .