A litre of oil paint can cost $1,100. Here's why it's so expensive.

  • Oil paint has been used for hundreds of years. Although its rise is associated with the Renaissance, paintings using poppy-seed oil date back to seventh-century Afghanistan.
  • The paint is made from a drying oil and pigment. Sometimes, fillers and thickeners are added to the mix.
  • A litre of oil paint could cost up to $US1,100. That’s because each colour takes a lot of work to discover and make.
  • Visit Business Insider’s home page for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Oil paint is simple. At its most basic, it’s just a mixture of oil and pigment.

But depending on the colour and quality, a litre of this paint could cost you $US285 to $US1,100.

So what is it that makes this paint so special? And why is it so expensive?

Oil paint has been used for hundreds of years. It’s made from a drying oil, like flaxseed, and pigment sometimes with fillers and thickeners added to the mix. When mixed and crushed, these ingredients bind and thicken to form a permanent paint.

While the rise of oil paint is associated with the Renaissance, paintings using poppy-seed oil have been dated as far back as seventh-century Afghanistan.

But there’s one key reason this paint hasn’t ever been cheap: Pigments cost a lot of money.

Tegen Hager-Suart: So in a good oil paint, you’ll be looking for high pigment loading and a good-quality pigment in that high pigment loading. So it doesn’t matter if you have loads of pigments – if it’s about quality pigment, you need a good-quality pigment. You’re looking for lightfastness so it doesn’t fade, and tests on lightfastness have been going on for generations, in fact, for some pigments. So you’re not going create a masterpiece and then 50 years down the line it’s completely washed out.

Narrator:The highest-quality oil paint can be up to 75% pigment. Throughout history, the most sought-after pigments have been worth far more than their weight in gold.

And that’s because they take a lot of work to discover and to make.

The favourite royal colour in Roman times, Tyrian purple, was a bright pigment made from the glands of sea snails. It could take 12,000 snails to make just 2 grams of the colour.

Indian yellow was originally made from the urine of cows fed only mango leaves.

And in the 16th to 19th centuries, mummy brown was actually made with the ground-up remains of Egyptian mummies. And while the colour was perfect for some flesh tones, we quickly ran out of mummies.

Tegen Hager-Suart: Well, it’s really interesting, and people don’t realise is most of our colour names, they’re not random. They’re not like when you go into a house-paint shop and you know you have eggshell blue or something, you just have a name of a colour. Each name of the colour tells you about its history or how it’s made or the process.

Narrator:Possibly the most valuable was ultramarine, meaning “beyond the sea,” as it had to be mined in Afghanistan. It was made from lapis lazuli, which in its purest pigment form can still cost up to $US30,000 per kilo. The gemstone was used to make the pigment until a synthetic version was created in 1826. The vibrant blue was valued so highly in the Renaissance that it was generally reserved for painting the robes of the Virgin Mary.

Synthetic versions of many of these pigments have been created, and while this means many are cheaper, some can still be difficult to produce; cobalt blue, for example, is made by heating its components to 1,200 degrees Celsius. So different-coloured paints are often sold at different prices.

Once you have these pigments, they’re tricky to work with. Winsor & Newton has been making oil paints for almost 200 years, and its factory in France produces over 100 colours.

Dominique Murzeau: Producing paint is a lot like cooking. First you have the mixing. Then you grind the paint multiple times. We have three types of roller: aluminium, steel, and granite. Then the paste is ready, and it goes into tubes. For oil, it’s usually aluminium tubes.

Tegen Hager-Suart: The whole process is so select. So for every single pigment, you need to handle it in a particular way. So it will need a particular amount of oil with it, and that ratio changes for every pigment. And you’re going to need to grind it to a particular fineness, and that could be coarser or finer. And actually, even with the same pigment, the milling and the grinding will affect the colour. So if you over-grind, you might end up with something [inaudible] or with another colour. If you grind it very fine, you might end up with a purple rather than a blue.

Narrator:The research and testing for these colours can take months to get it right. Small samples of each colour are made in a lab to measure consistency and lightfastness.

Above all else, the quality of oil paint needs to be reliable, as professional artists need a guarantee that what they’re working on now will last for hundreds of years. And despite comparatively new paints like acrylic, oil still remains an artist favourite.

Tegen Hager-Suart: It’s been used for every type of painting since the 15th century up to now. I mean, you’re talking anything from the early Dutch masters through to impressionists, abstract expressionism, hyperrealism, which is still a really important movement today. We’ve still got works that are still beautiful and relevant from the 15th century, and it’s also – it’s durable, and it has this ability to layer, where you can scrape back, you can keep working. You can work on a piece for years and keep on redoing it, and it gives every piece this history. And you know, the materials themselves are expensive. They’re reliable. They’re gorgeous. I mean, they come out of the painting at you.

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