Ye Olde Oils: Playing with Nan’s Ancient Paint Collection

A few weeks ago when I visited my Nan, I brought my little Pokemon lunch box full of oil painting gear with me, and we spent a whole day playing with my Winsor & Newton Winton oil paints. We had a lot of fun and both of us enjoyed using the paints, but after I went home, my Nan decided to dig out her old wooden box of painting gear.


A couple of the tubes in the box were acrylics that had hardened to such an extent that a jackhammer would be needed to extricate the paint; these tubes were thrown out. However, many of the oil paint tubes were as fresh as newly-bought tubes (some had started to stiffen a bit but were still perfectly usable). Of the six or seven tubes that had hardened, Non managed to resurrect most of them by adding a drop or two of linseed oil and allowing the paint to soften up overnight. One tube had solidified to a concrete-esque lump, while two others were badly damaged when we tried to get the lids off, but overall, we ended up with about 20 usable tubes. When I visited my Nan this weekend, we sat down to play with her old oil paints.


Most of the tubes were either Daler-Rowney (called Rowney Georgian back then) or Winsor & Newton, and most were student grade, though there were a handful of artist grade paints in there. There was also one tube of a brand I’d never heard of: Bocour-Bellini. I couldn’t find much about this brand at all, other than the company that made it seems to have gone out of business in the 1990s. We also couldn’t work out exactly how old the tubes are. All I know for certain is that they’re at least 20 years old, because I remember sitting with Non when I was about 10 and ‘helping’ her with an oil painting (read: ‘making a mess’). She says she’s had most of the paints for at least 20-30 years but can’t recall when she bought them, and my Google-fu failed to help me determine manufacturing dates based on the labels. If any of my readers can tell me roughly when each tube was made based on the label design (or any other interesting tidbits about these old paints), I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


(a couple of the WN colours – Alizarin Crimson and Sap Green – are actually their Artist grade line, not Winton. I mislabelled a few in my rush to do the chart.)

By the time we got rid of the unusable colours, we ended up with a pretty good selection of colours, including a few duplicates (which my Nan said I could add to my own collection of tubes, so I now have an Alizarin Crimson, a Sap Green and a Light Red). Unfortunately while I was charting the colours, we discovered that the Winsor Violet, while still soft, had gone bad (the colour had changed to an ugly muddy violet-grey and had acquired a sticky, clumpy texture we couldn’t fix by kneading and mixing it), so it was added to the trash pile. Some tubes had no labels and one that we thought was black turned out to be a dark sap green. Luckily the Payne’s Grey we had was so dark it looked like a black anyway (not like most modern Payne’s Greys that actually LOOK like dark grey). A couple of colours were a bit difficult to get out of the tube, but once we scraped some paint out with a skewer and added a little solvent or Liquin to it, they were just as fresh and workable as new oil paint.

After we’d sorted out our paints and played with a few mixtures on some scrap canvas paper, we each started doing a painting. Both of us did landscapes, with Non doing an outback while I did a beach scene.


Non working on her landscape painting.

One thing that really surprised both of us was the richness of the old oil paints. Even the artist grade ones are far more concentrated and densely pigmented than their modern equivalents. At one point, I picked up a tube each of my Nan’s old Winton oil paints from 20-30+ years ago and one of my new tubes which was probably manufactured within the last 5 years (both Payne’s Grey to account for any differences in the density of various pigments) and weighed them in my hands. Even though the old one had been used up a bit, it was still significantly heavier than my brand new tube, suggesting it contained less filler and far more pigment. There was very little difference between the old Winsor & Newton Artist’s colours and the Winton colours, but the difference between those and my Winton colours is very noticeable. It was also pretty interesting to note how cheap the paints were back then, with some of the tubes having prices like $1.17 and $2.30 written on them. Obviously they’d be a bit dearer now thanks to inflation but they’d still be comparatively cheaper than if you walked into a shop and bought a tube (eg. Winton tubes are available from the UK for about $5 AUD but they’re double that here, if not more).

None's finished painting. At this stage mine is only about half done.

Non’s finished painting. At this stage mine is only about half done.

Here’s my finished painting. Looking at it now, I think I need to make the shadow area in the wave a bit darker, but I can fiddle with it next time I’m at my Nan’s (I left the painting there because I had no way of transporting it home without it getting oil paint all over everything else). The painting didn’t take all that long to do and I took a few progress photos, so I might even turn it into a demonstration post.


‘The Coming Storm’. Winton, Rowney Georgian and Bellini oil paints on Eraldo di Paolo canvas pad.

We had a lot of fun painting with the old oil paints and we’re definitely glad we took the time to check them and ‘resurrect’ them rather than just writing them off and throwing them out. Since these paints are probably close to the end of their lifespan, we’re going to try to use them up before we get into my set of newly-purchased oil tubes. Having such a big set of paints will also help us paint more and paint more freely, since we won’t be worried about wasting our paints as we might be if we only had a few tubes.

Anyway, what about you, readers? Have any of you ever come across some old or interesting art supply treasures you didn’t know you had? Let me know in the comments!

This entry was posted in Materials, Miscellaneous, Oil Paint, Oils and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ye Olde Oils: Playing with Nan’s Ancient Paint Collection

  1. Adolfo Delgado says:

    I have seven of this tubes brand Bellini artist oil color ( bocour stablish in 1932, still soft and the colors still in good shape, I get them in Colombia South America in 1971 that is 49 years ego next year’s will be half century and that is went I going to use it, I just forget that I have yhem


  2. Rose Wells says:

    I have been going through my Gran’s old oil paints, and found some of a similar vintage. My google search for the ages of them brought up your blog.


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