Historically, the thousands of compounds found in oils constituted an "unresolved complex mixture" that frustrated efforts to analyze oil weathering. Moreover, different weathering processes inflict rich and diverse signatures of compositional change in oil, and conventional methods do not effectively decode this elaborate record. Using comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography (GC x GC), we can separate thousands of hydrocarbon components and simultaneously estimate their chemical properties. We investigated 13 weathered field samples collected from the Bouchard 120 heavy fuel oil spill in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts in 2003. We first mapped hydrocarbon vapor pressures and aqueous solubilities onto the compositional space explored by GC x GC chromatograms of weathered samples. Then we developed methods to quantitatively decouple mass loss patterns associated with evaporation and dissolution. The compositional complexity of oil, traditionally considered an obstacle, was now an advantage. We exploited the large inventory of chemical information encoded in oil to robustly differentiate signatures of mass transfer to air and water. With this new approach, we can evaluate mass transfer models (the Part 2 companion to this paper) and more properly account for evaporation, dissolution, and degradation of oil in the environment.