The Old and Complex Ritual of Easel Painting

“Oil painting is probably the most difficult of all the applied arts to master. If one used a musical analogy, drawing is the solo instrument, and one could link watercolour to the string quartet. Oils are the full orchestra. It is a process that has changed extraordinarily little over the centuries and although a few of the media are now synthetic and a few pigments less toxic, a painter from the C XVI would feel quite at home in the average studio today” (Trent Read). In December this year, the group exhibition A Subtle Skill, which seeks to celebrate the time-honoured tradition of easel painting, will be opening at the South African art gallery Knysna Fine Art.

Catching Butterflies | Caryn Scrimgeour | 75.5cm × 40.5cm | Oil on canvas

It is beautiful to think that an artist painting today is following in the footsteps of artists before them. Easels have been used since the time of the ancient Egyptians and Romans. However, it was not until the thirteenth century that easel paintings became popular, overtaking the place of murals, or wall paintings. As the Renaissance progressed, and the want for commissioned art became more prevalent, the easel became a staple in the artist’s studio. By this time, the three-legged easel that we know today had developed.

In the eighteenth century, lightweight easels became popular amongst artists who wanted to work outdoors and needed portable equipment. The origins of oil paint are ancient, even appearing in Theopilus’ treatise De Diversis Artibus, an account on the techniques of most known crafts in the first half of the twelfth century. Jan van Eyck (c. 1441) and other Northern painters contributed to the advancement and spread of oil paint and it eventually replaced tempera as the primary medium used by serious painters in Europe. Traditional oil painting involved building up the paint in thin transparent glazes, resulting in a rich tone which oils are known for. Tubes and ready mixed oil paint became available in the nineteenth century, increasing the variety of colours and the visual effects that painters could achieve.

One from the Next Order Series | Robert Slingsby | 76.5cm × 75 cm | Oil on canvas
Satsuma-Sunshine | Geoff Horne | 60.5cm × 60.5cm | Acrylic on canvas

Oil painting is one of the most difficult and time-consuming art practices, as seen in the extraordinary works by Caryn Scrimgeour, Sasha Hartslief, Henk Serfontein, Geoff Horne, Robert Slingsby, and André Serfontein to name but a few. In a contemporary world, where everything is instant, this exhibition emphasises on the time taken to produce these fine works; it stands testament to the skill and labour required to produce a painting, which we as viewers may be lucky to live with for a lifetime.

Sitting on the Dock | Andre Serfontein | 58cm × 48cm | Oil on canvas
Light Blue | Sasha Hartslief | 61cm × 50cm | Oil on canvas

Images featured in this article are but a few of the artworks that will be exhibited. Take a peek at the walls of Knysna Fine Arts to see what more the gallery has to offer:

Still life with Max Kozloff and Lucian Freud | Henk Serfontein | 45cm × 45cm | Oil on panel