How are the paints made that artists (like Rembrandt and Monet) used in the past? — SB, Oedenrode, The Nederlands
These paints consisted principally of a pigment and a drying oil binder. The pigment was usually a colored powder that didn’t dissolve in the oil. Historically, these pigments were materials collected from nature. The drying oil binder was usually linseed oil, obtained from the seed of the flax plant and a byproduct of the linen industry. Like most organic oils, linseed oil is a triglyceride—it consists of a glycerin molecule with three fatty acid chains attached to it. But while in typical animal or tropical plant oils the carbon atom chains of the fatty acids are completely decorated with hydrogen atoms (saturated fats) or almost completely decorated (monounsaturated fats), the carbon atom chains in linseed oil are missing a significant number of hydrogen atoms (polyunsaturated fats). The polyunsaturated character of linseed oil makes it vulnerable to a chemical reaction in which the chains stick permanently to one another—a reaction call polymerization. With time and exposure to air, the molecules in linseed oil bind together forever to form a real plastic! This “drying” process takes weeks, months, or years, depending on the chemicals present in the paint. It can be accelerated by the addition of catalysts—chemicals that assist the polymerization process but that don’t become part of the final molecular structure of the plastic.