Do You Know the Interesting History of Oil Paint Mediums?

Oil Paint Mediums 101

Oil Painting | Oil Paint Mediums | Artist Daily
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Modern oil paint mediums have come a long way since the time of Joseph Mallord William Turner, or J.M.W. Turner, (1775 – 1851) and Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792). Both of these painters, along with many others, used a medium, mixed with their oil paints, known then variously as Gumtion, McGuilpis, Macgilp and Megilp.

No matter what it was called, the formula was essentially a mixture of mastic varnish and an oil such as walnut, linseed, safflower or poppy oil, cooked with litharge or white lead.

Turner’s ‘Gumtion’

JMW Turner | Oil Painting | Oil Paint Mediums | Art by J.M.W Turner | Artist Daily
Venice – the Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore by J.M.W. Turner, 1834

Early oil paint mediums were a combination of oils, pigments and resins and took weeks, if not years, to fully dry. An artist could not add another layer of paint on top of a previous “un-dry” layer without the risk of the paint slowly dripping down the canvas.

Turner’s particular formulation of the medium megilp consisted of dried resin from mastic trees, lead acetate, linseed oil and turpentine. The resulting butter-colored, jellylike concoction enabled his oil layers to dry within days, ready for the next layer.

This allowed him to quickly build up luminous glazes of color giving his work a glowing appearance of sunlight.

Despite his famous carelessness about using fugitive reds in his paintings, it appears Turner was careful to formulate his megilp properly so it would not darken over time. The effect was sensational for the day and helped to make him famous.

Without megilp, it’s possible Turner may not have gained as much acclaim for his work. There is conjecture, however, that the detrimental changes seen in some of Reynold’s paintings may have resulted from his reliance on a less durable formulation of megilp.

Modern Megilps

JMW Turner | Oil Painting | Oil Paint Mediums | Art by J.M.W Turner | Artist Daily
Calais Pier by J.M.W Turner

Scientists have unraveled the chemical properties of Turner’s megilp to figure out why the mixture works. They have discovered the lead component of the mix generates a highly reactive form of oxygen.

This element reacts with the oils, speeding up their drying time. It also catalyzes the formation of an elastic organic-inorganic gel that holds pigments in place when additional paint layers are added.

Modern megilps, such as Gamblin’s Neo-Megilp, have been reformulated to get rid of the toxic lead, replacing it with a synthetic alkyd to achieve similar properties. The new version will not turn yellow or darken over time.

We use Neo-Megilp often and find it is a superb medium for creating transparencies in both direct painting and glazing. It is also our choice for turning a stiff oil paint into a buttery one without resorting to paint thinner, which breaks down the bonding qualities in paint.

Since Neo-Megilp dries more quickly than oil and adds elasticity to the paint film, it is an ideal substitute for oil when painting “fat over lean.” The added elasticity of the outer fat layers ensures the shrinkage of the drying under-layers will not crack the outer, drier paint film.

It is recommended to allow two to three days drying time between layers painted this way. We don’t always have the patience to follow that suggestion, so, like Turner, time will tell.

We hope you will join us on The Artist’s Road for more articles, interviews with top artists, step-by-step demonstrations and discounts in The Artist’s Road Store.

And, if you want more insight on oil painting mediums, members can read the whole story in the article, “Understanding Oil Painting Mediums.”

— John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.