A box of tools and materials for oil painting, brushes and paint tubes

Building blocks of art Photo: Albin Dahlström / Moderna Museet

Building blocks of art

“Oil on canvas” is a common description on our signs, but what does this actually mean? Building blocks of art invites you to look at art behind the scenes. To see, feel and try some of the materials and tools that artists use.

Art can be many different things: paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, installations, and even happenings. And yet, most works of art are built with the same elements: ideas that are visualised in various materials and media.

Building blocks of art introduces you to painting, drawing and photography. In our display unit you can explore the materials with your eyes and hands. Get an introduction to the materials that the artists in our collection used to create their works.



All paints, watercolours, acrylics, oils and crayons, contain pigments. The word pigment comes from the Latin word ‘pigmentum’, which means colour.

The first pigments were extracted from clay, earth and charcoal in prehistoric times. Earth colours were eventually complemented with pigments from minerals and later by man-made substances. Black pigment is often made from charcoal or burned bones, and blue often comes from metallic compounds.

The colour varies, depending on the iron content in clay and whether it is burned or raw. Raw and burnt umber give two entirely different shades of brown. Minerals that contain metallic compounds, such as lapis lazuli and malachite, are used for blue and green respectively.

Pigment och färgcirkel
Pigment och färgcirkel, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Until the 1920s, some paints even contained parts of mummies. The maroon colour “caput mortuum” (“dead head” in Latin) actually gets is special colour from the resins and iron oxides found in mummies. Today, however, the pigment for “caput mortuum” is synthetic.

Lightfastness indicates the degree of fading in sunlight. Some pigments are more resistant to fading than others. Synthetic colours, for instance, are more sensitive to light, whereas earth pigments are very lightfast.

Blått pigment
Blått pigment, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Bonding agents

To bind the pigment to the support – a canvas, a panel or paper – it needs to be mixed with a bonding agent. The earliest agents were animal fat, followed by other substances, including eggs, wax, oil, gum arabic and milk protein (casein). Modern paints use vinyl, varnish and various acrylics as bonding agents.

Bindemedel, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


Ink painting originated in China and has existed for thousands of years.

Today, the technique is common throughout East Asia and has also inspired Western artists since the 19th century. Impressionism, abstract expressionism and informal painting in both Europe and the USA have all been influenced by it.

Examples of ink painting in the Moderna Museet collection include works by Jan Håfström, Vera Nilsson and Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd.

Ink is black and light resistant; this means that it does not fade in sunlight. It can be diluted with water for an infinite grey scale. Perspective and depth are achieved by applying the ink in washes in many layers.

Tuschmåleri, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Ink consists of black soot from pines and bonding agents, usually animal glue. To make ink, the inkstick is rubbed against an inkstone and mixed with water. the process is repeated to get the right colour and amount.

Different supports give different effects and possibilities. The choice of brushes also affects the result. Rice paper, mulberry paper and silk are often used for ink painting, but other materials also work. Animal hair, such as goat or horse hair, is used for the brushes. The hairs are fastened by winding thin string tightly around a bamboo handle.

Tuschmåleri, närbild
Tuschmåleri, närbild, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


Watercolours are water-soluble and are available in tubes or cakes. The paint consists of finely-ground pigment held together with the bonding agent gum arabic, a resin made from the hardened sap of acacia trees.

The fine grain and transparency of the pigments is characteristic of the watercolour technique. Colours can be blended, and the painting is created gradually in thin layers. When the water evaporates, the paint dries on the paper. Traditionally, white watercolour was not used. Instead, paler sections were achieved through the white paper itself.

Pensel till akvarellmåleri
Pensel till akvarellmåleri, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Watercolours are usually painted on paper of good quality that does not go yellow over time and change the painting. The paper absorbs the water from the paint and wrinkles or bulges. To avoid this, the paper is usually taped to the surface to stretch it while it dries.

Watercolour brushes are very absorbent and can be made of squirrel, sable or other fine hairs or synthetic bristles.

Most artists have tried watercolours at some point. The Moderna Museet collection includes watercolours by Glenn Sorensen and Wassily Kandinsky.

Akvarellmåleri, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


Oil paints have been used since the 15th century and have been the dominating medium for painting since the 17th century.

Many works in the Moderna Museet collection are oils, including Salvador Dalí’s painting “The Enigma of William Tell”, Henri Matisse’s “Moroccan Landscape” and Sigrid Hjertén’s “Studio Interior”.

Oil paint consists of pigments mixed with oil and siccative. Linseed is the most commonly used oil, but other oils can also be used, such as walnut oil. Oil paint dries slowly.

The consistency is thick and creamy, but it can be diluted with oil or a solvent.

Oljefärg, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


Tempera is one of the oldest known painting techniques. It was the most common kind of paint in Europe, until oil paints became more frequently used in the 15th century. 20th-century artists who have painted with tempera include Ivan Aguéli, Hilma af Klint, Marc Chagall, Paul Klee, Giorgio de Chirico and Otto Dix.

Tempera consists of pigments mixed with a bonding agent and an emulsifier. Tempera is an emulsion, which means that one of the ingredients, the emulsifier, is used to make the other ingredients mix. The word “tempera” is Latin and means “mix” or “blend”.

Many traditional temperas consisted of bonding agents found at home, such as oil, eggs, wax or casein (a protein found in milk). The most commonly used bonding agent in tempera is egg, which doubles as both a bonding agent and an emulsifier. Pigments, water, oil and eggs are mixed to make a simple tempera.

Temperamåleri, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Egg tempera can be diluted with water, which makes it easy to use in most environments. The paint is applied in thin layers to avoid cracking. The oil and egg mixture oxidises in the air, causing the tempera to harden. Since tempera is fast-drying, the colours cannot be blended while wet. Instead, shading and nuances are achieved by painting in several thin layers.

Tempera can be used on most supports, and the result usually is very hard and durable. It is often quite matte, but the surface can be polished when it is completely dry for a glossier finish.

Temperamåleri, närbild
Temperamåleri, närbild, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


Acrylic is often used by contemporary artists, and the collection contains many paintings in this medium, including Kjell Strandqvist’s “Untitled” from 1988 and Inger Ekdal’s untitled painting from 1977.

Acrylics were developed in the 1940s, and the first acrylic paint was produced in 1953. This is a water-soluble medium consisting of pigments and the bonding agent acrylic resin, which derives from crude oil.

Acrylic paint dries and hardens in 30 minutes to two hours.

Akrylmåleri, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Different liquid additives can be used to delay drying, to paint washes or to make the paint thicker or thinner, more glossy or matte.

The support used is usually panel or canvas, and most brushes for acrylic paint are made of hog’s bristle or synthetic hair.


Today, many artists use paint that was not intended for artists but were developed for industrial purposes.

Moderna Museet has several works in its collection by artists who use this kind of paint, including Mamma Andersson, Francis Picabia and Alex Israel.

Spray paint can give objects a nice, even coating and is also used for graffiti. Spray paint has five ingredients: Finely-pulverised pigment, a bonding agent, a solvent, additives and gas that enables the paint to be sprayed.

Vinyl paint is made for painting large surfaces such as walls or floors.

Syntetiska färger
Syntetiska färger, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


Lacquer has been used for thousands of years to give surfaces an attractive look and protection. In Japan and China, lacquer has long been made with a latex sap from the Urushi tree. The sap dries in a humid environment and the lacquer is very durable. It is said that objects were lacquered in the middle of a lake, where the air was both humid and dust-free.

Complex materials

Synthetic paints and lacquers are complex materials that contain many different ingredients: bonding agents, various pigments, solvents and other additives, such as drying agents (siccatives) and stabilisers.

Painting and the environment

Many artists address environmental issues in their art, and some of them are represented in the Moderna Museet collection. One example is Gerd Aurell’s work “If We Can’t Spray the Brush Will Take Over”.

But how do we practise painting in an environmentally sustainable way? Here are some tips!

Cleaning brushes

Instead of allowing paint to go down the drain when you wash brushes and other tools, make a simple receptacle for paint spill.

You can use a fine sieve over a bucket. Dip the brushes in oil and rub them against the sieve so the excess paint drips into the bucket.

When the brushes are clean enough, store them in a plastic container with oil until the next time you need them. Any kind of vegetable oil can be used, including rape oil, corn oil or sunflower oil.

Pigment dust

Pigments can be seriously harmful to health and the environment, but even non-poisonous pigments can be toxic if inhaled.

To avoid pigment dust, add some boiled or distilled water to the pigment in a jar. Fasten an airtight lid and shake the jar until the pigment is smooth and has the consistency of toothpaste. This pigment paste can then be mixed with a bonding agent.


Solvents are used for diluting and cleaning, and the rule of thumb is “like dissolves like”.

Water-based paints are water-soluble. Similarly, oil-based paints are soluble with ethereal oils. These can be turpentine, made from coniferous trees, or petroleum-based products such as essence de petrole or white spirits.

Most “natural” and synthetic solvents are a hazard to health and the environment. All solvents should therefore be disposed of in a container and taken to a recycling station after use.

The most environmentally friendly way to dilute oil paint and clean brushes is to use linseed oil. This does not make the paint as runny as ethereal oils, but you can absorb the excess with a rag that you store in water or an airtight container.

Rags soaked in linseed can self-combust, so do not throw them in the rubbish.

A box of tools and materials for painting watercolors, brushes and paint tubes
2022 Photo: Albin Dahlström / Moderna Museet



It is often said that drawing provides the most direct connection between eye and hand. If you have access to pencil and paper, drawing is a quick way to capture an impression or record a thought.

Generally, a sketch is a spontaneous “snapshot” of a situation that forms the basis for an idea which can be developed at some later stage. A drawing, on the other hand, is more of a finished product and can often stand as a work of art in its own right.

In the fifteenth century the author Leon Battista Alberti formulated the principles that have come to define the art of drawing: a point is made on a surface so that it is visible to the eye. Several points in an unbroken formation make a line. The line can be divided up into different sections, some of which are straight, while others are curved. Several lines together create a figure. Shading the figure creates a simulation of depth.

The artist Paul Klee expressed it somewhat differently: “A line is a point that has gone for a walk.”

The boundaries between drawing and painting may sometimes be blurred. If pencil lines are visible in a finished watercolour, the resulting image is classified as a drawing; if there are no visible pencil lines, it is considered to be a painting. A work produced with pastel crayons is often called a painting.

Verktyg för skissning och teckning
Tools for sketching, 2022 Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


Paper comes in many different qualities. Some types of paper are well suited to pencil drawings, others are better for watercolours or acrylic colours. Rough grain papers, in other words paper with an uneven surface texture, or “tooth” as it is sometimes known, will cause a pencil to hop or skip across the surface.

Some paper qualities are so smooth that lines drawn in pencil can almost be wiped off the surface. Other types of paper contain visible plant fibres or even flowers (so called botanical inclusions).

Papers that need to be long-lasting without yellowing or becoming brittle are specially processed to remove any acidity in the paper.

Silkespapper, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Sketch paper is usually a thinner quality than drawing paper. Sketch paper is thin, lightweight paper that is ideal for quick studies and drawings in pencil and crayon. Using watercolours on sketch paper will cause the paper to buckle.

Drawing paper is a slightly stronger and sturdier quality that is well suited for use with pencils, markers and liners, as well as various types of crayon/chalk marker.

Watercolour paper is water-resistant, so it “holds” the liquid paint for a while before absorbing it.

Origami paper is a thin quality that has been specially processed to make it easy to fold into paper sculptures. Origami papers are often coloured or patterned on one side.

Silk paper and crêpe paper are thin, translucent papers that have been coloured. They are ideal for collage work, for example. Crêpe paper is characterised by its stretchability and elasticity, which means that it is possible to physically form the paper to a certain degree.

Drawing material

You can use all sorts of different things to help you to draw: for example, your finger on a steamy bathroom mirror, lipstick on a napkin, and sticks on the beach. But there is also a huge range of different pencils and crayons to choose from.

Pencils come in various degrees of hardness. A hard pencil makes fine, precise, light grey lines, whereas the marks made by a soft pencil are soot black in colour and slightly fuzzy. Graphite pencils are usually graded on a scale from the hardest 9H (where H stands for hard) to the softest 9B (where B stands for black).

Ink and ballpoints: The ballpoint pen does not generally command high regard today, as the ink is viscous and has a tendency to smudge. Nevertheless, certain artists have shown ballpoint pens some favour as a medium.

Alberto Giacometti, for example, liked the fact that ballpoints, which proliferated on the French market in the 1950s, were inexpensive, easy to carry around with you, and suitable for use on many different types of surface.

Pennor och kritor
Pencils and crayons, 2022 Photo: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Liner pens have traditionally contained black ink that is produced with the aid of lampblack, a fine black pigment consisting of almost pure carbon. Liners are used for calligraphy and line drawings. Liners have what is known as high hiding power, in other words high opacity, but the medium can be diluted to produce a result that is semi-transparent.

Felt markers and felt tips are often referred to as markers or liners, even though they do not contain any lampblack.

Crayons come in many different forms. Most common are wax crayons, which are also often inexpensive. Charcoal pencils and charcoal sticks are made of compressed charcoal and produce an even shade of black.

When using charcoal as a medium, it is important the choose a grainy paper, in other words paper with a rough texture that allows more of the charcoal to adhere to the surface.

Pastel crayons are similar in some ways to charcoal, but they come in every conceivable colour and shade. There are both dry pastel crayons and oil pastels, whose pigments are mixed with waxes and oils.

From thought to artwork

Many artists use sketch books. Pablo Picasso spent almost all of his time sketching and drawing, and he often used to browse through his old sketch books to seek inspiration.

Vera Nilsson was another inveterate sketcher, whose sketchbooks are now preserved in the collections of Moderna Museet. Hilma af Klint would sometimes make a sketch after she had completed a work, in order to better understand what it was that she had painted.

A sketchbook can serve as a sort of incubator for ideas. It is rare for a work of art to come into being out of the blue. An idea can begin to take shape without words, in the form of a notion or an impulse. It perhaps needs time to mature, before it is ready to be committed to paper. It may be a quick sketch that then develops and changes as an idea becomes more clearly defined.

A sketch may be translated into a three-dimensional model in paper or card, before subsequently being transformed into a finished sculpture in bronze, stone or wood. Or perhaps it will remain simply as a thought. Sometimes that is all it needs to be.

Skissbok och skissblock
Skissbok och skissblock, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Lygia Clark’s “Red Matchboxes”

The little red sculpture is a copy of the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark’s “Red Matchboxes” from 1964 that can be found in our collection. The copy and the sketch are both the work of the artist and art educator, Hillevi Berglund.

Lygia Clark was one of the co-founders of the Neo-Concrete Movement in Rio de Janeiro in the late 1950s. Their aim was to bring abstract art closer to ordinary life and ordinary people.

In the early 1960s Clark began to work with interactive sculptures that the viewers themselves could play a part in forming. She had a keen interest in architecture and toyed with the idea of a house in which residents were able to move the walls according to their needs and moods.

The red boxes glued together evoke the idea of a modernistic building that can readily change its form simply by sliding the match trays in and out. They may even turn the viewer’s thoughts to the workings of the human heart. Despite the apparent simplicity of Lygia Clark’s small sculpture, it creates space enough for some very big ideas.

A girl is looking at tools for sketching thorugh a glass showcase of the exhibition  "Building blocks of art"
Building blocks of art Photo: Åsa Lundén/Moderna Museet


Different types of cameras

The word photography literally means “written in light” or “drawn with light”. Light is a key factor in the creation of every photographic image. Throughout its history photography has constantly developed, been modified and served numerous different functions.

Today photography encompasses everything from a single, simple click on a button to incredibly complex digital and analogue processes.

Cameras come in many forms, but common to them all is the need for light to somehow be admitted. Pressing the shutter button exposes a surface inside the camera to light. The image itself, however, is the product of a several factors that need to be taken into account.

The result varies depending on whether the picture is taken in daylight, with a flash or in a photographer’s studio. Pictures can also vary depending on the camera that is used to record the image.

There are certain settings on the camera that allow the user to choose to manually control how much light is admitted through the aperture, as well as the shutter speed, which determines how long the aperture remains open. Alternatively, you can choose to let the camera itself adjust these parameters automatically.

As long as cameras have been around, they have consisted of a lens, an aperture, the camera housing and a surface on which the image is recorded. In days gone by, a lens cap served the function that the shutter has today.

Kamerafilm och polaroidfoto
Kamerafilm och polaroidfoto, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

Taking photos with a phone

Today most of us have a camera in the mobile phone we constantly carry with us, and we can use filters or apps to edit the pictures we take. Just a few quick fingertip touches on the screen are all it takes to change exposure, contrast, colour temperature, and so on.

Many of us share the pictures we are most proud of via a range of social media. All of these many ways of manipulating and fine-tuning pictures are the result of almost 200 years of experimentation.

Photographic processes


A cyanotype produces an image directly on paper with the aid of sunlight. You can experiment with the technique yourself by purchasing one of the many readily available cyanotype kits.

X-ray photography

X-rays were discovered in 1895 by the German researcher Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. He was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901. Numerous artists have exploited the potential of X-rays.

Our conservators at Moderna Museet also make occasional use of X-ray technology. In 2019 we X-rayed one of the museum’s best-loved works of art, Robert Rauschenberg’s iconic combine, “Monogram”.

Here you can see a film of how this was done: “The Return of the Goat”.

Negative and positive

To develop prints from a roll of film you need a darkroom, chemicals, a developing tray, magnifying lamp and light-sensitive photographic paper.

The negative images on the film roll are copied onto photographic paper, which will produce the positive images.

The chemicals used in modern photo developing processes are less dangerous than those previously required.

Kamerafilm och polaroidfoto
Kamerafilm och polaroidfoto, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet


The Polaroid Corporation is an American company best known for its instant-film camera that has made the name Polaroid synonymous with this type of camera.

The photo is ejected from the camera immediately after the shutter has been pressed, making it possible to observe how the motif slowly appears on the photographic paper.

Digital photography

Today almost all mobile phones include a digital camera. There are also digital camera housings. It is possible, as well, to create digital 3D images, in other words pictures that can be printed in different sizes and directly on a range of different materials.

Photography and modernism

Modernism evolved parallel with the development of photography. As photography assumed the role of recording reality, this left artists free to focus on works that express feelings and exploit the unique properties of painting and sculpture.

The angles and perspectives of photography provided the impulses for new picture compositions and new ways of working. Photographic images from different parts of the world fuelled people’s desire to travel.

When the Kodak company launched the world’s first camera with a film roll in 1888, this revolutionised the market and turned photography into a hugely popular hobby. The specially built cameras were returned to the Kodak factory, where the films were developed. In 1900 the company introduced the hugely popular Kodak Brownie, a classic box camera.

Since then, there have been countless different types of camera and film. Today, while film photography is no longer common, large-format and medium-format films are still available for traditional cameras.

Moderna Museet’s collections include approximately 100,000 photographs from the very earliest days of photography up to the present day.

Kameradelar, 2022 Foto: Albin Dahlström/Moderna Museet

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