Where did Your Art Supplies Come From?

Since time in memoriam, art has been mankind’s favorite creative activity and we have indulged in it with the help of innumerable tools, techniques, and mediums. Most of the basic art supplies we use today have revolutionized the art world to such an extent that it’s impossible to fathom what art would be like without them. But have you ever wondered how and when they came into existence??  Here’s a history of art materials that I consider to be the backbone of the art world.

Pencil

This basic tool that makes it possible for us to give form and shape to our creative thoughts came into being due to the discovery of an unusually pure deposit of graphiteinEnglandin1564. It’s this graphite that makes up the writing part of a pencil which is commonly referred to as the “lead”. The name graphite originates from the Greek word graphein, which means “to write.” Artists’ pencils come in a wide range of hardness, depending on how much clay is used to bind the graphite.

Easel

Easels are believed to have existed as early as ancient Egypt. The first written record of an easel was by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. In the 13th century easel painting became more popular than wall painting.

Pen

The earliest versions of pens were the brush pens used by the Chinese for writing (1st millennium BC), reed pens used by the Egyptians (circa 300 BC) and quill pensor pens made of bird feathers(7th century or earlier). Then came the metallic pens and ones with metallic nibs in the mid-19th century which didn’t have a reservoir of ink in them, and had to be dipped in inkwells. Thereafter, fountain pens, which don’t have to be dipped in ink constantly, were developed in 1884. Ballpoint pens were invented in the 1930s or 40s, and soft-tipped pens became commercially available only by the 1960s. Most pen-and-ink drawings done before the 20th century were produced with reeds or quills. Some famous artists that favored pens were Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Rembrandt, and Vincent van Gogh.

Paintbrush

Paintbrushes are one of the earliest art supplies known to have been used as early as the Paleolithic Period. Evidence of this can be seen in caves in Spain and France and in early Egyptian tombs. Paintbrushes have been made of animal fibers such as hog bristles or horsehair, and more modern brushes are made of nylon fibers, polyethylene, or even wire.

Oil paints

Until quite recently it was believed that oil painting had originated in Europe in the 11th century. In 2008 it was discovered that oil paints extracted from natural sources were used in cave paintings in Afghanistan in the7th century (around 650AD). But it was also discovered and popularized by painters in 15th century Netherlands.By the end of the 16th century oil paints replaced tempera and become the medium of choice for several artists in Europe, especially Italy. Some of the world’s most famous paintings like the Mona Lisa have been created using oil paints.

Crayon

The basic components of a crayon—wax with pigment—can be traced back thousands of years to Ancient Egypt and Greecebut the earliest forms of crayons, i.e., chalk and pastels were known as early as the 16th century. Wax-based crayons were probably developed sometime in the 19th century. The good old Crayolas used in school were invented in 1902.

The Paint Palette

In the early medieval times, artists would put their pigments into several bowls, eventually ending up mixing paints and having lots of dishes to wash. This led to the development of the artist’s palette.

One of the oldest known depictions of the palette—a small wooden disc with blotches of paint on top, appears in De Mulieribus Claris, a 1374 collection of famous women’s biographies by Italian scholar Giovanni Boccaccio. One of them is a palette in the shape of a nine-pointed star held by a female painter as she works on a Madonna and Child composition.

By the 16th century, the kidney bean-shaped palette with a hole for the thumb emerged, as seen in an engraved portrait of Flemish painterHans Bol. Rectangular palettes were also used among Flemish painters such as Dirck Jacobsz, who included one in a 1550 portrait, as did Dutch Mannerist painter Joachim Wtewael in a self-portrait from 1601.
It eventually reached other parts of Europe by the mid-17th century as is evident fromArtemisia Gentileschi’s
Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting from the 1630s and Diego Velázquez’sseminal 1656-group portraitLas Meninas. Little has changed about the classic artist’s palette since, other than the introduction of materials like plastic, acrylic, and safety glass in place of wood.

Canvas

Canvas was originally introduced in 14th-century Italy as a more affordable alternative to wood panel. However, it took centuries to catch on because most Renaissance art was made for and funded by wealthy families who preferred lavish panel paintings. Works on canvas were considered less significant and reserved for secular paintings to be hung in private summer properties. By the 16th century, Italian artists and their patrons started to realize that wood is prone to decay, and canvas became the ideal surface for painting. The best quality canvases came from Venice and eventually spread to Northern Europe, where they slowly overtook the panel tradition. Staunch panelistPeter Paul Rubens’ first experiment on canvas, Wolf and Fox Hunt(c. 1616), helped popularize it in his native Flanders, and by the 18th century it became the de facto surface for painting.

The Paint Tube

American portrait painter John Goffe Rand single-handedly revolutionized art with his invention of the paint tube.
Rand was frustrated with the shelf life of his oil paints, often finding them dried up before they were even used. At that time, there were only two options available for storing paint – in fragile glass jars or syringes, which were dangerous to carry around, or in pig bladders, which artists would fill with pigments and seal with a string. To access the colours, artists had to poke a hole in the bladder and scrape out as much paint as possible. Since the hole couldn’t be re-sealed, whatever paint they didn’t gather went to waste.


In 1841, Rand had an epiphany: Small metal tubes would make storing paints simpler, cleaner, and handier, while increasing their longevity and portability. By March 6th, he had taken out patents on these “metallic collapsible tubes,” and they soon became a hit. In 1904, British chemist William Winsor added a screw able cap to Rand’s tube, allowing painters to save colours for later use. Pigment experts could then produce and sell paints in bulk without fear of them drying out, thereby making the medium cheaper.

DISCLAIMER – All the information, data and imagery in this blog post is for informational and educational purpose only. Some images and data may have been taken from the links included below and I give full credit to these websites/pages, thereby in no way claiming them to be my own. Other data is based on my personal experiences and opinions.

Sources and Credits –

https://www.britannica.com/list/art-history-the-origins-of-7-of-your-favorite-art-supplies

https://www.creativelive.com/blog/inventions-that-made-us-more-creative/

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