Image showing Wacom Tablet, brush and paint
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From Oil Paint to Graphic Tablets

If Paula Scher was given a canvas and oil paint, she can most probably start working on her ideas immediately. But what if Leonardo da Vinci was given a graphic tablet and expected to paint the Mona Lisa on there? He will most likely fail, right?

With this little thought experiment, one can see how much impact an artist’s time/era and therefore also their available medium has on their expression of ideas. What would the Mona Lisa look like if she was painted on Photoshop, not with oil on a poplar panel?

Anyway, if you think about it, humanity has come a long way. The first paintings were drawn on cave walls, then we managed to paint on wood panels, then paper and canvases and since quite recently, directly on screens. It has been a long, and importantly, an exponential journey with the most developments in the past few decades. But for starters, let’s skip the early history and begin with the rise of modern art and the development of oil paints.

Powdered Pigments found in India
Dan Brady [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

What is oil paint?

Unlike common belief, traditional oil paint was actually not as thick and syrupy in consistency. By mixing powdered pigments with linseed oil and grinding the mixture in mills, the paint turned smooth and buttery in nature. Though oil paint has been used for thousands of years, Jan van Eyck is generally seen as the “re-inventor” of the medium, as he worked on its development as well as used it as one of the first artists in fine art.

At first, oil was not used by itself but rather as a top layer on tempera painted underneath.

Tempera: the technique of painting with pigments bound in a water-soluble emulsion, such as water and egg yolk, or an oil-in-water emulsion such as oil and a whole egg (Tate).”

This helped to achieve the certain glistening glaze it produced, which was typical for that time period. Generally, artists had to paint in layers as the colours needed time to dry. However, one of the advantages of using oil paint as a medium is that it simply is easy to handle. No specific brush types were required. Artists like Rembrandt and Titian were even known to have worked with their thumbs and fingers, rags and spatulas.


Titian's Oil Painting Bacchus and Ariadne
Titian [Public domain]

Why is oil paint so important?

Compared to other types of tools, oil paint has proven to be the most dominant. Many artists of today, work with improved versions of the traditional oil paint and acrylic paint, which has been produced commercially since the 1950s. However, it is important to mention that during the Impressionist period is where things began to change.

Up until then, artists have been using canvases in their studios mainly painting portraits, still lifes and landscapes. By doing the opposite of the custom, Impressionist artists like Monet and Renoir became pioneers (even though they were looked down on during their times).

Impressionism developed in France in the nineteenth century and is based on the practice of painting out of doors and spontaneously ‘on the spot’ rather than in a studio from sketches (Tate).”

By doing this, the artists drew out the oil paint’s and the canvas’ full potential by embracing and making use of their portability.

As time went by, more and more (technological) developments were made. We went through the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars. And all of them came with all sorts of inventions and improvements to our lifestyle.

The Digital Age

About a decade after the second World War, people came up with the general idea of creating pen-based tablets. One of the first somewhat successful ones was the Rand Tablet, first released in 1963. The tablet is believed to be the iPad’s predecessor.

But, when talking about Apple, it is important to mention that they actually came out with a graphic tablet themselves. Their first attempt was in 1979 and was rather unsuccessful. Their product caused issues with other hardware (TVs in particular), thus the FCC had to stop their release. Fortunately, they managed to release an improved version; the Koala Pad.

The Rise of the Wacom Tablet

The current leading company for graphic tablets is Wacom. The Japanese enterprise launched their first tablet in 1984 (only a year after the founding of the company itself!) and set themselves apart by creating the cordless stylus. Being rather small compared to their market competitors, Wacom still managed to convince Disney of their technology. They even used their tablets to create films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

In the past 15 years is where their magic really happened. With technology being more accessible than ever, Wacom has launched products for commercial use! They now offer hardware starting from around 60 GBP, which is their Wacom Intuos line. For more advanced designs, they even advanced to ‘Pen Computers’, which they describe as “all-in-one solutions for accomplished creatives”.

Wacom Intuos Tablet
Medvedev [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

What does all of this mean for the artist of today?

Some argue that digitalisation has made it easier to duplicate artworks. And if you’ve been reading the news, you must know all about Article 13. So, this whole copyright fiasco does not only have an impact on the beloved memes of the internet, but also on the artworks digital artists share.

On the other hand, digitalisation has created new pathways for artists to create. Technology has set different standards and even redefined certain art types. Creating sketches, graphics and illustrations has never been easier; both digitally and traditionally.

Without these technological advances (not just drawing tablets), creating artworks wouldn’t be as easy as it is. Now, artists have access to all types of paint and colours. There is no need to mix pigments and oils; paint tubes can even be bought online nowadays without having to step out of the house!

On the digital side, a door to a new world has been opened. Digital art certainly has a different finish, maybe even feel, to it. With programmes like Photoshop and Illustrator, creators have been pushing the limits to art in the best way possible.

So, what do you think? Are the technological advancements in art a hindrance or an asset?


What to read next?

A Short History of Canvas in Art: From Oil Paintings to Photo Prints, Jessica Stewart

An Early Touchpoint, Ernie Smith

Animator Eric Goldberg in conversation with Wacom, Wacom

Digital & Painting: A Brief History, Jesse Rogers

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