The practice of producing oil sketches within the process of creating a painting began in 16th-century Italy. Artists such as Polidoro da Caravaggio, Beccafumi, Federico Barrocci, Tintoretto and Veronese were the first to make use of painted oil sketches as vehicles to try out their ideas when devising a painting. However, their use of such works was limited, given that drawing was their principal preparatory method.
Basing himself on these precedents, Rubens’s innovative contribution consisted of developing this preparatory process and making systematic use of images painted in oil and on more durable supports than paper. Rubens used some of these sketches to elaborate his ideas on new compositions, or often to show to clients or as a guide for his assistants and collaborators. Depending on their different purposes, these sketches could be very sketchy or highly finished, as well as small or relatively large. They differ from the rest of the artist’s pictorial output in that they are less highly finished and detailed, the paint layer is thinner and the preparatory layer is frequently visible.
Rubens thus transformed the oil sketch into a fundamental part of his creative process, and the nearly 500 surviving examples by his hand reveal him to be the most important artist of this type of work in the history of European art.