A Brief History of the Oil Sketch

Entombment / Barocci
The Entombment, Federico Barocci, about 1579–1582
Black chalk and oil paint on oiled paper

Oil sketches are drafts of paintings on wood, canvas, or paper.

Artists began to use oil sketches in the 1500s to plan out the colors and areas of light and dark in their paintings. They also showed oil sketches to patrons to help convince them to order a larger version of the composition.

Artists often used oil sketches, such as The Entombment (right), to develop religious and history scenes. Religious and history scenes were considered more challenging than other subjects, such as landscape and portraiture, and were therefore thought to require more preparation.

Venetian Artists

Venetian artists particularly valued color. They therefore often used oil sketches rather than drawings to sketch out their compositions.

Venetian artists of the late 1500s, such as Paolo Veronese and Jacopo Tintoretto, developed a sophisticated oil-sketching technique, creating form through color contrasts rather than lines.

St. Francis / Rubens
The Miracles of Saint Francis of Paola, Peter Paul Rubens, about 1627–1628
Oil on panel

Peter Paul Rubens

In the early 1600s, Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens transformed the oil sketch into an independent work of art. He made oil sketches in a wide range of sizes and colors, on a variety of materials, and with various amounts of detail and line.

Collectors prized Rubens's oil sketches, and so did the artist himself.

By the 1700s, oil sketches had become a standard technique among Italian, French, and Northern artists. Oil sketches still had a practical role, but they were also seen as evidence of an artist's brilliance and technical skill.

Giambattista Tiepolo

The oil sketches of Giambattista Tiepolo are especially inventive and skillful. Unlike other artists, Tiepolo began his compositions with a single oil sketch, which he used to explore color relationships. Only later did he use drawings, such Head of a Man Looking Up (below right), to work out specific parts of a composition.

Tiepolo kept his oil sketches in the studio so he could refer to them as he painted a commission. Later he sold them or gave them to clients or friends.

Head, Man Looking Up / G. B. Tiepolo
Head of a Man Looking Up, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1750–1760
Red and white chalk on blue paper


Valuing Oil Sketches

Collectors in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries eagerly sought oil sketches. Oil sketches were especially popular in the 18th century, when a spontaneous painting style came into vogue.

Critics and collectors valued oil sketches as pure expressions of genius and individuality.

Since the mid-20th century, art historians have used oil sketches to gain insight into artists' working methods and intellectual processes.