Nov 27th, 2011 | | History | 3 Comments

The Art of Painting in Oyl (2)

The Art of Painting in Oyl

John Smith’s The Art of Painting in Oyl may perhaps lay claim to being the first house-painting manual in the English language. At least that was the conclusion that I reached after a lengthy analysis of house-painting literature some twenty years ago.

Not only did it appear in nine editions throughout the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, but a plagiarised edition was produced twice in the first quarter of the nineteenth century.1 Furthermore, one can see signs of its influence in many other works published in both Great Britain and also in the United States.2

The work was written by John Smith, a clock-maker and writer, who published his Horological Disquisitions concerning the Nature of Time in 1694. In the early editions several of the chapters focus on the painting of sundials, and it is not always clear when he is writing about the painting of these, or of exterior work generally. For this reason, I have decided to concentrate on the last edition which Smith himself is likely to have written, the 5th of 1723.

Sun Dial - Malmesbury House, Salisbury

Sun Dial – Malmesbury House, Salisbury

This is the second extract from Chapter II – A Catalogue of the several Colours used in painting with Oyl; their nature and way of making – in which the blue, brown, green and yellow pigments are considered. The first group of pigments – white, black and red were covered in an earlier extract.



“Smalt is a lovely Blue, if it lie at a distance, but it must be only strowed [strewn] upon a ground of white Lead; for it is a Colour that carries no good body in Oyl it is so sandy; besides, Oyl changes the colour, and makes it look quite black, except Whites be mixed, and they spoil the Beauty of the Colour and make it faint; therefore the best way to lay it on is by strowing (as I shall show in the following Work) and then there is not a more glorious Colour in the World.

“Note, That of this Colour there is two sorts, the one much finer than the other, but the coursest [sic] gives the most glorious Colour of all, if lookt on at a distance, for near the Eye the Beauty is not so great; the finest is that which is called Oyl Smalt, which is ground with White-Lead, may be laid in Oyl; but it bears not a good body, and besides works with much difficulty.”

Blew Bice

Azurite & Malachite

Azurite (Blue Bice) and Malachite (Green Bice)

“Blue Bice bears the best body of all bright Blues used in common work, but ’tis the palest in Colour, it works indifferent well, but inclines a little to be sandy; therefore it requires good grinding, and that on a very hard stone; ’tis a Blue that lies best near the eye of any now in use, except Ultra-Marine, a Colour produced from the Tincture of Lapis Lazuli; the process of doing which, you may find in a Book called Modern Curiosities; but this is so vastly dear, that ’tis not to be used except in pieces of great price.”

Blew Verditer

Keith Edwards making Blue Verditer - © Dominick Tyler Photography - http://www.dominicktyler.com/editorial/colour-hunter/

Keith Edwards making Blue Verditer – © Dominick Tyler Photography

“Blue Verditer is a Colour of no good body, but something sandy, and of no very good Colour of it self, being apt to turn greenish; and, being mixt with Yellow, makes a good Green.”


Indigo Dye


“Indigo is a dark Blue, if workt by it self, to remedy which, Whites are usually mixt, and then it makes but a very faint Blue; this Colour is the tincture of a Vegetable called by that name, much growing in both the Indies, the Leaves of which being put into wooden Cesterns, filled with water, are often violently stirred about till the greatest Part be reduced to a Slime, or Muscilage, which being separated from the Water, when sunk to the bottom, and dried, produces that substance which we call Indigo; ’tis a Colour that grinds very fine, and lies with a good body, and is very much used in vulgar Painting.

Note, That the longer this Colour is ground, the more beautiful and fair it looks.”


Raw and Burnt Umber

Raw and Burnt Umber

“Umber is a Colour that really has no affinity with the others before mentioned, being neither a White, Black, Red, Yellow, Blue, or Green, yet is a Colour of as great use as any of the rest in vulgar Painting; ’tis an Earth or Mine, dug out of a certain island in the Mediteranian Sea, being of the Complexion of that which among us is called a Hair Colour; it grinds very fine, and bears the best body of any Earthy Colour that’s now in use, and when burnt becomes the most natural shadow for Gold of all others, and with a Mixture of White, it resembles the Colour of new Oaken-Wainscot the nearest of any Colour in the World; it dries quickly, and with a good Gloss.”



“VErdigrease is the best and most useful Green of all others; ’tis a Colour made out of Copper, being no other than the rust of that mettal promoted by the fumes of sour Wine, and the rape of Grapes: the process of which, as ’tis performed at Montpelier in France (where the best is said to be made) as you may find in Mr. Ray’s Travels, pag. 454. ‘Tis a delicate Green inclining to a Bluish, but with a little Pink-Yellow, it makes the delicatest Grass Green in the World; ’tis a Colour that will grind very fine but not without some pains; and when ground fine, it lies with a good body, and works well; at the Colour-Shops there is a sort of it that they call distilled Verdigrease, being a sort that is wholly purified from dross and filth, of good use in fine work, but too dear in vulgar Painting.3

Azurite & Malachite

Azurite (Blue Bice) and Malachite (Green Bice)

Green-Bice4 is a colour of a sandy nature, and therefore not much used; Green Verditer is also a sandy Colour, neither of them bear any good body, and are seldom used, except in Landskip, where variety is required.

Yellow Oaker

Yellow Ochre (Oxford Ochre)

“Yellow-Oaker, is of two sorts, one called Plain-Oaker, and the other Spruce-Oaker, the one is much a lighter Colour than the other; ’tis a certain concret or stony substance, found among stiff Clays in divers parts of this Kingdom; but those parts that contain most of it, is the Shotover-Hills near Oxford, from whence most of the Yellow Oaker, that is sold in England, is dug out; ’tis a Colour, that with pains, will grind very fine, it bears an excellent body, and resists the weather well.”

Pink Yellow

Yellow Lake

The berries at the top are Buckthorn berries, which produce this yellow lake

“Pink-Yellow, is the Tincture of a Vegetable, whose substance being reduced to a Mucilage, and after dryed, becomes a good light Yellow, a little inclining to a green; ’tis a Colour that grinds very easy, and bears a good body.”

Realgar & Orpiment

Realgar is the orange form of the mineral Orpiment

“Orpiment is that Colour that some call Yellow Arsenick; ’tis a good Colour for some uses, but very troublesome to grind, being a Mineral stony substance of a poysonous nature; therefore take care that the fumes of it don’t offend the Brain in the time of grinding.”

“Masticote5 is a good light Yellow for most uses, especially in making Greens, of which several sorts may be framed out of this Colour, being mixt with Blues; ’tis a Colour that grinds fine, and bears a good body.”

“Besides these Colours, a Dial-Painter must furnish himself with Leaf-Gold for Guilding, Linseed Oyl to temper his Colours with, and Oyl of Turpentine.”

The plagiarised editions of 1821 and 1825 are too heavily based on John Smith’s original work to be of much use in understanding early nineteenth century house-painting practices. They should be read with care but are worth seeking out if you are interested in the subject.

Butcher - Smith's Art of House-Painting

W. Butcher – Smith’s Art of House-Painting (1821 edition)

1 John Smith. The Art of Painting. (The Art of Painting in Oyl.) 1676. 2nd edn. 1687. 3rd edn. 1701. 4th edn. 1705. 5th edn. 1723. 1769 edn. 9th edn. 1788. (Rev. Butcher), 1821 & 1825.
2 Three that immediately spring to mind are:
a) The Builder’s Dictionary or Gentleman’s and Architect’s Companion. 1734.
b) John Barrow. Dictionarium Polygraphicum: or, the whole body of arts regularly digested. 1735.
c) T. Elliott. The Modern Painter: A Treatise on Painting, Gilding, Bronzing, Staining, Japanning, Varnishing, Polishing, Etc.. 1842.
3 By which he means house-painting.
4 By this he meant Malachite
5 Massicot

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Comments (3)

Jeffrey B. JohnsonNo Gravatar » 25. Feb, 2012

Is there specific information about how smalt was actually “strewn”? By what means does one “strow” smalt?
Thanks. The above was very interesting.

Jeff Johnson
Johnson & Griffiths Studio

PatrickNo Gravatar » 26. Feb, 2012

The best account comes from a later work – “The Painter’s and Varnisher’s Pocket Manual” of 1825 (pp.100-101):
The only proper, indeed the only practicable method of laying it on, is by strewing it on a ground of white lead, which is done in the following manner. Temper white lead with good clear drying oil, as stiff as you can well use it with the pencil or brush: with this white cover the surface of the work you intend to strew with smalt, being sure to cover it completely and equally. Then strew your smalt thickly over this white ground, while it is moist, and with the feather-edge of a goose-quill, stroke it over, that it may lie evenly and thickly alike on all parts, and with a piece of linen cloth, dab it down close, that it may take well upon the ground laid under it. When you find the ground quite dry, wipe off the loose colour with a feather, and blow the remainder off with a pair of bellows.

The King’s Staircase – Hampton Court Palace | Patrick Baty – Historical paint consultant » 09. Jan, 2015

[...] carbonate, a white compound derived from metallic lead. 8 Some information on Smalt can be found here 9 William Kent was commissioned to paint designs on the ceiling using the more expensive [...]