Amber and oil painting

Amber and oil painting – Painting Techniques

posted by Rineke de Jong, 20-3-2016

This interesting article I came across on my quest for knowledge. It was written by Amandine Gilles.

Because I am very interested in old techniques I translated it from French to English for you. In not one book I have came across this. I hope this something to add to the knowledge about the painting.




Amber is a fossil resin, hard and transparent, ranging from light yellow to orange-red. It has lots of application forms. But did you know that amber is also used for oil painting?

Jacques Blockx says  in his “Compendium à l’Usage des Artistes Peintres”, dissolved amber (the orange) is miscible with oils and essences. It gives a pure product, fat, elastic, shiny, does not change color, does not crack and the drying is slow and steady. It is therefore ideal for an excellent protection of the painting. “Because of its reflective ability, resolved amber gives oil color clarity, transparency, finesse and strength of the tone, such as no other material can give.”

Amber en olieverf

ambre dissous blockxx

The use of amber in oil

See here  various key points about Amber (“resolved Amber” from the article Practique des Arts No. 45):

Effective and powerful glaze – Amber is the resin that the effect of depth to the highest degree accentuates, thanks to the high natural transparency and high reflectivity. In addition, the colors are strengthened.

The application of layers is facilitated – Amber solidifies as soon as we stop moving or shaking, this function is called thixotropy. It serves as insulation, applied over the primer layer, thereby amber makes the application of new layers as possible.

No sagging of the paint or cracking (crazing) – Regardless of the number of layers, amber has the great quality to allow oxygen to circulate despite its rigidity. Thanks to point 2, the problems caused by an oily surface to prevent drying are solved!

Durable protection – Amber envelops the pigments, causing great protection and conservation of the colors obtained in the long term. In addition, yet retains the solidification slightly flexibility so that cracks, often caused by movements of the wearer (canvas, wood, etc.), can be prevented.

Varnish is useless – because the pigment particles are all trapped in the resin, the pictorial paste is completely protected and isolated.

Just as perfection does not exist, this almost miraculous product has, however, also disadvantages:

The price – the qualities of the amber liquid are certainly extraordinary, but the price is often a deterrent. Proof: about € 200 for 50 ml …. ????. Fortunately, a small amount is enough!

Irreversibility – This poses a real problem for conservators. Amber is actually resistant to solvents (gasoline and alcohol). However, this feature makes it possible to clean the painting with the water and soap. A big advantage.

Amber solutions by Blockx

The application

Resin is secreted by a tree, and can be dissolved in gasoline, alcohol, or oil, but not in water. Amber is so hard that it is extremely difficult to dissolve, the resistance of the resulting liquidity is complex even by modern methods. In a small amount (15-30%), solvents (benzene, ether, alcohol, chloroform …) heated above 300 ° C, it is the perfect way to get solved the amber, I hardly need saying that this operation very is risky.

The use

Originally amber was mixed with boiled oils at high temperatures and then used as varnish to the painted works (egg tempera until the sixteenth century). But because of the limitation of the viscosity and temperature (it must be applied hot), a new type of varnish, there was invented in the nineteenth century. This is the varnish that we know today.

The amber-colored liquid is also used in the same way as a painting medium. It is mainly used for glazing, it mixes with oil (linseed or poppy for light colors) and is widely used in the last layers.

The masters and material

Amber en olieverf

Van Eyck – Arnolfini Portrait

All the works of the old masters used in their creation, amber have remained admirably well preserved.

The Flemish Primitives – early sixteenth century

At that time, one painted with water-based paint (egg tempera) and the varnish was oil-based. The Van Eyck brothers were the first who have experimented with oil-based paints, that is to say a mixture of pigments, resins and oils. That is the reason why the invention of the “oil painting” should be attributed to them*). For the first time, people saw beautiful portraits displayed on a background of deep colours.

*) in the biografy of the Van Eyck Brothers it is denied that they invented the oil painting.

Amber en olieverf

Dali. Les montres molles

Salvador Dali – 1904-1989

According to his diary, Gala, his wife and muse, would have advised him to use amber in his painting. And Dali did.

Remember this … Mix turpentine with amber by pressing hard so that the amber solves well. Today’s mistake is adding too much amber. You must dip a very small long tapered brush into the liquid. Without maiking stains on your painting, because the excess material is very difficult to take away at the edges. While limiting the liquid as you wish.

To paint strong components, the colors should be quite liquid, as for the main tones even very fluid … Journal d’un génie – By Salvador Dali himself.



Mythologie is vaak de bron van inspiratie. Ik probeer het goddelijke en het menselijke te verenigen in mijn schilderijen. Paarden en andere dieren, maar ook groente en fruit vindt u terug in mijn schilderijen. Portretten maak ik in opdracht. Regelmatig neem ik deel aan exposities nationaal en internationaal en heb vele prijzen gewonnen. Mijn werk is gepubliceerd in diverse uitgaven en aangekocht in binnen- en buitenland.


  1. So do I, that’s why I published this post. Thanks for your reaction.

  2. I do like this. Won’t be easy but fascinating to try this way of mixing material.

  3. Hi Julia, Thanks for your interesting reaction with warnings about the reliability. I also got a reaction on Facebook from someone who said she made varnish with Copal (= young Amber) at school, which was hard labour. I looked it up on Wikipedia in Dutch and there it was also mentioned as an ingredient for varnish. In English you also can find information.

  4. Rineke, thanks for the translation! I share your interest in traditional methods and materials.
    If it helps, I was able to find a little more info regarding amber in two books on hand.
    First, Ralph Meyer, in his “Artist’s Handbook,” says that in recipes left by medieval writers, “The term ‘amber’ was probably more descriptive than specific and may have referred to any currently available hard, transparent resin.” In other words, at times they were talking about amber colored varnishes, rather than varnishes made of amber.
    Michael Wilcox, in his book “Glazing” says, “Despite claims by manufacturers that Amber is reliable it does have a very long history as a resin which can crack readily and become quite yellow.”
    He mentions that Maxfield Parish worked with amber resin as a painting medium, and this could be the cause of the very poor condition of certain of his paintings. He didn’t specify which paintings or give further reference, so it would be interesting to know more.


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