I’ve been writing about olive oil, and especially the business of olive oil, for an online publication called the Olive Oil Times, and I thought I’d try a post here about olives and drawings. The image just below is of a vase in the British Museum. The olive oil amphora is from around 520 BC and shows men harvesting olives from very stylized trees (the branches look almost like monkey puzzle branches). It is attributed to the Antimenes Painter (fl. 530-510 BC). Since it’s incised, and since it is very linear, it comes close to drawing, even if most people would see it as painted.
Images of olives are not as common as you would think. It could be that they were so present, and common, that it wouldn’t have made sense to depict them. At least, for Mediterranean artists. Van Gogh, who grew up in the Netherlands, was fascinated by olives. At the Saint-Rémy asylum, he painted them in oils and drew them in ink. Here is a drawing in reed pen and brown ink, with the lines so fluid, they look as if they could be done with a brush.
Olive oil is slow drying, and easily becomes rancid, making it a poor choice for a medium in oil painting. Cennino Cennini in his Libro dell’Arte recipes mentions linseed oil (writing olio di semenza di lino or olio di lin seme) most frequently. In Chapter 25, the only time Cennini uses the word olive (ulivo), he uses olive oil to grease a stone slab in the preparation of tracing paper. In Chapter 187, he calls it edible oil (olio da mangiare) and uses it to grease a wax figure before covering it in gesso, giving the reader the choice of using lampante oil (olio da bruciare). He sometimes tells his readers to use the oil of their choice, and sometimes does not specify what kind of oil should be used.
One thing that olive oil and drawings share, is that they should not be kept in the light. I’ve heard experts in olive oil say that a bottle kept in the light for a week is unfit to eat. So–storage in boxes, drawers, and cupboards for both drawings and olive oil–just miles apart.