Is There Anything New in Artists' Oil Paints?

Since the introduction of the collapsible tube over 170 years ago, manufactured artists’ oil paint has changed the way artists work. Artists no longer must laboriously grind pigment in oil to make paint. With this change also came greater uniformity in oil paint. Let’s face it; the composition of oil color is pretty simple. Generally, only three items are used in a modern oil color formula. They are the pigment, the oil, and a stabilizer (typically aluminum stearate). And as more and more pigments manufactured by large industrial companies find their way into artists’ oil colors, the last differences also disappear.

But not entirely.

Rublev Colours Artists’ Oils are unlike other brands. Why are Rublev Colours different from other manufactured oil paints? One reason is that we use genuine natural and historical pigments like those used by the old masters. Most of these pigments are not found in other brands.

Another reason is that we make Rublev Colours Artists’ Oils as they did before modern tube colors—without modern additives. Rublev Colours Artists’ Oils contain only pigment and oil. They are formulated to maintain the unique characteristics of each pigment in oil. The character found in each tube of our oil colors is unique due to the pigment inside, giving the artist new choices of texture, opacity, consistency, tone, and hue. With Rublev Colours, you experience the transparency of yellow ocher, the pale coolness of green earth, and the crystalline glitter of blue azurite.

A Brief History of Modern Oil Paint

Let’s see how developments in the past 170 years have changed artists’ oil paint. Many of these changes have brought about greater efficiency for suppliers, but at what cost to artists?

U.S. Patent 2,252 Collapsible Tube

U.S. Patent 2,252 Collapsible Tube
The collapsible tube was first patented in the U.S. by artist John Rand on September 11, 1841.

Collapsible Tubes

While in London, the artist John Rand invented a collapsible paint tube made of tin for storing artists’ oil paints. Before this advancement, painters generally mixed pigments with oil in small amounts and stored the paint in animal bladders or glass syringes. The tin tube allowed unused paint to be stored and used later without drying out. In 1841, Rand patented the invention with the United States Patent Office. (Rand 1841)

Although some claim paint in tubes changed how artists approached painting in the nineteenth century, this is an overly simplistic view. They often provide the quote of the father of Pierre-Auguste Renoir as proof of this claim, “Without paint in tubes there would have been no ...Impressionism.” (Callen 2000) However, it is agreed that collapsible tubes revolutionized how artists’ paints are made and sold commercially.

Titanium White

Titanium dioxide white pigments have become one of the most important pigments today and are products of twentieth-century technology. Although the incorporation of titanium dioxide in commercial paint began in 1919, the industry remained skeptical into the 1920s of the claims made for these pigments. Some supply of the pigment occurred in France from the mid-1920s, but it was not until the 1930s that artists’ manuals indicated a degree of acceptance. (Laver 1997)

Out of concerns for lead poisoning, titanium dioxide white has almost entirely replaced basic lead carbonate (lead white or flake white) on the artists’ palette. But does this pigment make a good substitute for the principal white pigment on the artists’ palettes for the past 400 years? In a forum post, Jaap Boon described the role of lead white as “multiple.” A through or primary drier links the acid groups of drying oil, stabilizing the paint in the early stages of drying and further stabilizing it to form a strong, flexible film. Without lead white, something else must assume these roles to achieve the results we see in old master oil paintings. He concludes, “I don’t think that that magical material has been found yet simply because we have only recently begun to understand the molecular structure of paints. It is my belief that the period 1950–2000 will bring us many defects in the oil paints that are now maturing.” (Boon 2007)

Recent concerns about the use of titanium white in artists’ paint reverberate Boon’s sentiment. A paper by Smithsonian researchers found that titanium white forms a flexible film but is not as strong as lead white paint. Of greater concern is that zinc oxide is routinely added to manufactured artists’ paints labeled titanium white, flake white, and many pale colors called hues. The paper states, “These paints often become very brittle in as little as three years if excessive zinc is used.” (Mecklenburg 2005)

Aluminum Stearate and Modern Paint Additives

As commercial oil paints replaced those made by artists, manufacturers sought ways to prevent oil and pigment from separating in the tubes as the paints sat on store shelves or in artists’ paint boxes. Aluminum stearate, a metallic soap, was particularly effective in mitigating this tendency for pigment and oil to separate. When aluminum stearate was first introduced to artists’ paints is not known, but it is directly mentioned in a 1942 painting materials review (Gettens and Stout 1942) and a paper by Levison in 1949 when he wrote “...the use of aluminum stearate, customary for several decades, was openly declared...” (Levison 1949)

Aluminum stearate alters oil consistency, ultimately changing the paint handles. With increasing amounts of aluminum stearate, the oil pigment mixture becomes viscous, and by using an appropriate amount of aluminum stearate, the paint can gel at a lower pigment concentration (Mayer 1965). This can be used to create a “cheaper” paint since a smaller amount of costly pigment needs to be used. (Tumosa 2001)

Rublev Colours Makes It Simple Again

By making oil paint simple again, Natural Pigments gives artists new choices. Rublev Colours Artists’ Oils provide a new selection of colors by restoring natural and historical pigments to the artists’ palette. Without modern additives, these paints have a different consistency and feel under the brush. This is an essential distinction for artists who have only known modern oil paints.

These choices also represent clear advantages to art supply retailers who must differentiate themselves in today’s competitive marketplace of discount online outlets and large chain superstores.


Rand, John (1841) “Improvement in the Construction of Vessels or Apparatus for Preserving Paint,” U.S. Patent 2,252, issued September 11, 1841.

Callen, Anthea (2000) The Art of Impressionism: How Impressionism Changed the Art World. Yale University Press, p. 106.

Laver, M. (1997) “Titanium Dioxide Whites,” Artists’ Pigments. A Handbook of their History and Characteristics, Vol. 3, FitzHigh, Elizabeth West (ed.) Oxford University Press, pp. 295–355.

Boon, Jaap (2007) “Lead White,” AMIEN, August 30, 2007.

Mecklenburg, Marion F.; Tumosa, Charles S. and Erhardt, David (2005) “The Changing Mechanical Properties of Aging Oil Paints,” Material Research Society Symposium Proceedings, Vol. 852, Materials Research Society, pp. 4–5.

Gettens, R. J., and G. L. Stout (1942) Painting Materials, D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., p. 93.

Levison, H. W. (1948) “The Effect of Aluminum Stearate on Embrittlement of Highly Pigmented Oil Films,” Official Digest of the Federation of Paint and Varnish Production Clubs, Nov., p. 826.

Mayer, R., (1965) The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, Revised Edition, The Viking Press, pp. 150–153.

Tumosa, Charles S. (2001) “A Brief History of Aluminum Stearate as a Component of Paint,” WAAC Newsletter 23(3) pp. 10–11.