Why is Oil Paint so Expensive?

  • January 29, 2021
Oil paint used to create masterful paintings [PC: Creative Commons]

Oil paint, defined by Oxford English Dictionary, is a paste made with ground pigment and a drying oil such as linseed oil, used chiefly by artists. But despite how simple the formula for making the type of paint, the prices for a liter of oil paint can reach as expensive as $385 to $1,000. So what exactly is so special about oil paint, and why does it hike up such a high price point? 

Back in the rise of oil paint during the Renaissance, only rich artists or wealthy citizens were able to purchase this due to its price. Ground pigment for oil paint is extremely expensive due to the fact that it has to be a specific quality to be used in the paint. 

Tegan Hager-Suart, paint specialist at Jackson’s Art Supplies, told Business Insider that it really doesn’t matter how much pigment you have, if it’s a bad quality or not up to standard then it simply won’t be used. She also stated that the type of pigments are important so that “you aren’t going to create a masterpiece and 50 years down the line it’s completely washed out.” 

Dominique Murzeau, General Manager of Colart Le Mans, carries on the company that has been making oil paint for over 200 years, and their factory in France has made over 5,000,000 liters of paint each year. He explains that making oil paint is similar to cooking, a lot of care, mixing, checking up on the paint, testing, etc. 

A highly sought color, Tyrian Purple, was a bright pigment made from the glands of sea snails, and it could take 12,000 snails just to squeeze out 2 grams of the color. Another color, Indian Yellow, used to be produced from the urine of cows that were only fed mango leaves in order to achieve consistent color. The color Mummy Brown, made with ground up remains of egyptian mummies, is one of the rarest to this day due to the inability to take more remains of mummies. 

With many rare colors, the art community had to create categories to separate the rare from common. In professional levels, there are series levels for oil paints. Series 1 is the lowest and thus the cheapest, while series 7 is the most expensive and rare. One series 7 color is UltraMarine, translating to “beyond the sea.” Mined in Afghanistan, the lapis lazuli can cost up to $30,000 per kilo (for its purest form). It is then crushed and used as pigment for the oil paint. There are synthetic versions of UltraMarine and other various rare oil paints, but that doesn’t stop the popularity of such paints. When the Virgin Mary was painted in the Renaissance, UltraMarine was exclusively used for her robes since it had a rich and vibrant feel. Although there’s high rarity oil paints that are beyond difficult to produce, common ones such as cobalt blue can be a task as well. In order to create it, it has to be heated to 2,200 degrees Celsius. 

Oil paint may seem extravagant to many, since there’s other more affordable options such as acrylic paint, but it’s not going anywhere. Artists favor oil paint due to its consistency and lightfastness (resistance to fading when exposed to light). So next time an oil painting is made, there’s a good chance that a lot of money and time was poured into it.

Information comes from Business Insider and Oxford English Dictionary

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