Paint is made up of two components pigment and binder. Pigment is the color and the binder is the adhesive that sticks the paint to a surface and the pigment particles together. It is the binder that determines the working properties of the paint. It determines whether it is matte or glossy, thins with water or turpentine or is used on wood or paper. I'm sure our ancient ancestors tried mixing their pigments with all kinds of stuff trying to make it stick. Binders also determine if paint flakes, cracks, darkens, rubs off or washes away. Occasionally a medium is found that works really well.

Fayum mummy portrait A Fayum mummy portrait


    Encaustic paint uses wax as the binder. It is probably one of if not the first form of successful paint. The artists of Ancient Greece did the earliest encaustic wax paintings. The Greek term "enkaustikos" means, "to burn in. It probably began with shipbuilding where wax was used to seal the hulls of ships. Mix in some pigment and you had a more impressive war ship. Homer mentioned the painted Greek ships fighting at Troy in 800 B.C. A significant Greek population had settled in Egypt during the Hellenistic period following its conquest by Alexander. Greek-trained Egyptians started to incorporate encaustic paint into their paintings as well as mummification practices. The oldest surviving encaustics are the Fayum mummy paintings from Egypt starting in the 1st century. A portrait of the deceased was placed over the person's mummy as a memorial. Despite being over 2000 years old they have stood the test of time with minimal cracking and without having faded or darkened. Wax doesn't discolor with age and it is impervious to moisture. It is hard to work with however and about the time of the decline of the Roman Empire it was all but replaced by egg tempera paint which is cheaper and simpler to use. Encaustic painting had a revival in the 18th century, but much of the technique had to be rediscovered. Though encaustic techniques were commonly used in murals throughout Europe during the 19th century it wasn't until the availability of portable electric heaters and the variety of tools in the 20th century that made the use of encaustic easier and more accessible. The fact that wax requires no drying time and that it can be textured and built up in relief appealed to artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Delaunay and the muralist Diego Rivera who would use it consistently throughout his career.

Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo 1508-1512


    The ancients didn't have many choices when it came to painting the house; it would be a long time before latex house paint. What they did have was fresco. A fresco was a wall decoration in which pigment mixed with water was applied to wet lime plaster. The drying plaster was the binder for the paint. In painting "buon fresco", a rough under-layer is added to the whole area to be painted and allowed to dry for a few days. On the day of painting, a thinner, smooth layer of fine plaster is added to the amount of wall that can be completed in a day. This area is called the "giornata" ("day's work"). Once a giornata is dried, no more buon fresco can be done, and the unpainted fine plaster must be removed before starting again the next day. In a wall-sized fresco, there may be ten to twenty or more separate areas of plaster. A "secco" painting, in contrast, is done on dry plaster. The pigments require a binding medium, such as egg, or glue to attach the pigment to the wall. A secco work done on top of buon fresco is the standard from the Middle Ages onward. Generally, buon fresco works are more durable than any a secco work added on top of them. The additional a secco work would be done to make changes, and sometimes to add small details, but also because not all colors can be achieved in true fresco, because only some pigments work chemically in the very alkaline environment of fresh lime-based plaster. Blue was a particular problem, and skies and blue robes were often added a secco, because neither azurite blue nor lapis lazuli, the only two blue pigments then available, works well in wet fresco. The three key advantages of work done entirely a secco were that it was quicker, mistakes could be corrected, and the colors varied less as they dried. In wet fresco there was a considerable change. Fresco wall paintings were popular for a long period of history going back to about 1500 BC with the Minoans on Crete until the Renaissance when oil painting on canvas allowed large works to be completed in a studio. Fresco painting had diminished in popularity, but continues to the present day.

The Birth of Venus
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli 1486

Egg Tempera

    A tempera medium is dry pigment tempered with an emulsion and thinned with water. Tempera was the original mural medium in the ancient dynasties of Egypt, Babylonia, Mycenaean Greece, and China and was used to decorate the early Christian catacombs. True tempera is a mixture using the yolk of fresh eggs, although manuscript illuminators often used egg white to make a tempera called Glair. Egg was the primary medium for medieval painters. The paint once dry was very durable and long lasting. Egg tempera is most associated with the painting of religious icons starting in the 6th century, but its use was first documented in the 4th century. None of the early work survives, however. The great Byzantine tradition of tempera painting peaked in Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries with Cimabue, Duccio di Buoninsegna and Giotto. It's use continued through the 15th Century with Botticelli the last great Egg tempera painter before it was replaced in popularity by oil painting. Although tempera has been out of favor since the Renaissance, later artists such as William Blake, and the Pre-Raphaelites have periodically rediscovered it. In the twentieth century it became popular with American painters such as Andrew Wyeth, Thomas Hart Benton Ben Shahn, George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, Robert Vickrey, Peter Hurd, and science fiction artist John Schoenherr, notable as the cover artist of Dune.

Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine
Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine by Quinten Massys 1420


    Distemper is a crude form of tempera made by mixing dry pigment into a paste with water, which is thinned with heated glue. The glue was made by boiling animal skins mixed with other organic tissue and applied to linen that was coated with both the glue and also white chalk. This made a surface suitable for drawing and painting. The advantage of using glue as a binder is that the colors render as matte and opaque, many reds and blues bound in glue would have appeared with a brilliance and intensity difficult to achieve with oil. Unfortunately, surviving examples have greatly deteriorated over time, having suffered from color changes from exposure to light. Distemper easily dissolves with water meaning that the accumulated layers of dirt cannot be removed without damaging the linen or dissolving the pigment. As a painting medium it all but disappeared with the introduction of oil painting and less expensive pigments, but continues to the present day as a glue used by both artists and wood workers.

The Arnolfini Wedding
The Arnolfini Wedding by Jan van Eyck 1434

Oil Paint

    Oil paint is a type of slow-drying paint that consists of pigment suspended in a drying oil, commonly linseed oil, walnut oil or poppy oil. It wasn't that artists before the Renaissance didn't know about oils, they were thick and often rubbed into paintings as a finish, what made it possible to turn oils into a painting medium was the distillation of turpentine. With the availability of turpentine there was suddenly a paint that allowed colors to be blended. Rendering realistic light and form was possible where it hadn't been before. It started in Northern Europe. In the 14th century oils were used in thin glazes over egg tempera paintings on panels. The Van Eyck brothers, Hubert and Jan are the artists most associated with its early use in its pure form. They were the first to find a technique that speed up the drying time and increased the color palette available to the artist. They worked on panels in thin layers of oil glazes. Later Antonello da Messina (1430-1479) introduced a lead oxide into the paint preparation that further reduced the drying time. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) added beeswax and cooked the oils more slowly, which reduced the darkening of the colors. Artists continued to make improvements to the paint. By the end of the 15th century painting on canvas became popular, it was cheaper, easier to move around, and more suitable for larger works. Egg tempera painting had all but disappeared. With time oil paints have proven to be highly versatile. They can be applied in thin veils of color glaze or in thick three dimensional impasto brushwork. Its color can be subtle or garish. The paints continue to improve and the colors available continue to increase.

The Blue Boat
The Blue Boat by Winslow Homer 1892


    Watercolor is pigment ground in gum arabic, a sap from the acacia tree grown in the Middle East and West Asia. It is thinned with water and usually applied to paper. The paint is ordinarily transparent but can be made opaque by mixing with a whiting and this is called gouache. Paper determined the development of watercolor. The increased availability of paper by the fourteenth century finally allowed for the possibility of drawing as an artistic activity. So artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo began to develop drawings as a tool for studies and for recording information. Albrecht Durer (German, 1471-1528) is traditionally considered the first master of watercolor because his studies were full renderings in the medium. With the production of higher quality papers in the late eighteenth century, the first national school of watercolorists emerged in Britain. The most talented watercolorist from this period was Joseph M.W. Turner (English, 1775-1851). In the 1780's, a British company began producing paper made especially for watercolorists, which was treated with sizing, or glazing, to prevent washes from sinking into the fibers of the paper. By the late eighteenth century an Englishman, William Reeves, began selling watercolors in portable cakes. In 1846, Winsor & Newton introduced colors packaged in metal tubes. This growing technology increased its popularity among European artists until eventually its use spread to America where it's portability made it popular with artists like Audubon and Homer.

Le Luxe II
Le Luxe II casein painting by Henri Matisse, 1907-08


    Casein is a protein found in milk. When an acid, such as vinegar, is added to milk it will separate into solids (curds) and liquids (whey.) Precipitating casein is the first step in making cheese. When an alkali like ammonium carbonate is then combined with the casein it creates a strong adhesive. A very strong adhesive, it is used to glue the wooden parts of airplanes together. It is actually too strong for a paint binder and must be diluted. When used as a paint binder it is water soluble, and can be thinned to a wash much like watercolor, or applied in a thick paint layer approaching that of oils or acrylics. Casein paint has been used for centuries and has been found on ancient Chinese and Egyptian artifacts. Early European settlers brought it to America as "milk paint." In the 18th century it was used to paint sets for theatre and opera productions, and that practice continues today. Its dull sheen surface makes it ideal for use under bright lights. It also photographs well, and became a favorite of many 20th century illustrators for that reason. Since the introduction of acrylics, Casein has lost its popularity but works such as Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze and Edvard Munchs' The Scream were created using Casein colors.

Portrait of an Artis
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)By David Hockney, 1971


    Acrylic paint is fast drying paint containing pigment suspension in acrylic polymer emulsion. Developed in the late 1940s, acrylic paint has only a brief history. Polymer-based acrylic entered the market as latex house paint, but soon artists and companies alike began to explore the potential of the new binders. Water-soluble artists' acrylic paints became commercially available in the 1950s, offered by Liquitex, with high-viscosity paints similar to those made today becoming available in the early 1960s. In 1963, Rowney (now part of Daler-Rowney) was the first manufacturer to introduce an artist's acrylic colors in Europe. Acrylic painters can modify the appearance, hardness, flexibility, texture, and other characteristics of the paint surface by using acrylic media or simply by adding water. Acrylics have the ability to bond to many different surfaces; paper, canvas, a range of other materials and media can be used to adjust their binding characteristics. Acrylics can be applied in thin layers or washes to create effects that resemble watercolors and other water-based media. They can also be used to build thick layers of paint-gel and molding paste media are sometimes used to create paintings with relief features that are literally sculptural. Acrylics burst onto the artistic scene at a time when artists were beginning to explore movements and forms such as pop culture, photo-realism, abstract expressionism, and pop art. Acrylics provide an ideal medium for these art forms. American artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, and David Hockney were attracted to the acrylic medium for the flexibility afforded by these paints. Artists could work much more quickly due to its substantially faster drying time. Although late to arrive, acrylic painting has had a marked influence in the development of 20th century art movements and forms. The flexibility and versatility it offers are still being explored today.

It is no longer the arts that drive forward the technology of paint and color. Printing, the automotive industry and advertising play an important role in the search for new colors and particularly the durability of paint films. Today we have paint that changes color, repels graffiti, or is so slick it can't be climbed and is used deter burglars and vandals. The early alchemists became a chemical industry that produces the color and paint for the needs of a changing world.