(Well, John Cogley really, CEO of Daniel Smith art materials and the man who, for all intents and purposes, has now become Dan Smith)
Any reason that would require to go to Seattle I would probably have been game for… I’ve always wanted to go there and see for myself this city of which I’ve heard so many great things. So when I discovered Daniel Smith founded his eponymous company there nearly 40 years ago, the visit definitely jumped on my US dream tour list.
I spent my first day there chatting with my Hungarian Jewish WWII refugee B&B hostess, discovering the beautiful gardens at the top of the city, the Asian museum and the Dick Blick art materials store (this compulsive behaviour of mine isn’t curable I’ve discovered… I simply cannot pass another art store and not push the door!!) After walking through the busy and colourful fish and flower market I end up, in a Greek restaurant which has a dazzling view of the sea and a New York feel, somewhat disoriented… Maybe too many cultures are whirling in my head or maybe it’s just a very big city and I’ve seen nothing but redwoods and seals for the last few days!
The next morning I easily find the store cum factory cum offices of Daniel Smith in the docks area of Seattle. Being early for my appointment gives me enough time to realise, whilst going down the aisles of their shop, that the company doesn’t just make the amazing watercolour paints I love and know them for but… oils, acrylics, inks… just about everything else! Oh dear that’s a bit embarrassing (I find out later these are not distributed in Australia which is why I knew them not.) Anyway, the reason I really really wanted to interview John is that his assistant had wetted my appetite by warning me he had quite a few “Adventures of the Lost Pigment” to impart and so I’m sure we’ll find common ground.
The man bears slim resemblance to Dr Indiana Jones (sorry John and given the suitable hat who knows) but he does employ one as you will learn. However he makes up in enthusiasm for his subject what he might lack in rattle snake catching skills… I love my job, is about the first thing this man tells me, I love the people I work with (most of whom are artists in their night jobs) and I love the exchange with artists too, but mostly I simply love manufacturing paint! And paint has only a positive influence on the world, all about creating beauty and that’s really neat! Well, it seems he’s in the right place then…
28 years ago John joined the company founded by Dan in 1976 after he sold his motorcycle and bought with the proceeds a triple roll mill. When as a young artist Dan had moved to Seattle, he quickly found himself enjoying the company of a circle of printmakers and so, soon enough, together they worked and held exhibitions. To support his career (and maybe also bring home some printing inks, which is what artists used then), Dan worked at a commercial printer. Soon enough though he discovered that these industrial printing inks were neither lightfast nor slow drying enough for printmaking techniques and so… he sold his motorcycle and what follows is virtually the stuff of legend. But he must have also missed that mechanics part of his life because, after selling the business to John, he moved to South Dakota and is still there building cars from scratch. Yet, these two keep in touch and John calls him affectionately a friend and a mentor.
What makes both these colourmen somewhat original is that they consider themselves working in “a pigment company… that makes paint.” And yes, their most singular contribution to the market was and still is a daring approach to pigments. At a time when most were still plodding along with the traditional and 19th century pigments, Daniel Smith was talking to the automotive industry and testing quinacridones for the artist’s purposes. And while some were content to keep going with ochres and a few tried and tested minerals, they were sending their mineralogist on journeys by plane, jeep or even mule to some mighty remote locations to identify high-quality veins of newly found ores and buy entire cargo loads of these. Because, and it might be obvious but it’s still a huge gamble every time, as a paint company you cannot afford to run out of that rare pigment once you’ve put it on the market. After sourcing, testing and producing, consistency becomes your next obsession.
It is quite possible that you will never again find a totally similar vein of that shade of the mineral in question, it also happens, more often than not, that when that diamond, silver or gold mine (which revealed as a side effect some other mineral of interest) is abandoned, it will get flooded and so you have to buy the whole lot when you chance to find it and store it… John points then to some 40 feet containers on the dock below and tells me each contains decades worth of that one pigment used here. Strangely enough this over-stocking sometimes has to happen with synthetic pigments too. When the car industry stopped their production of “Quinacridone Gold” vehicles for examples, John knew manufacture of it would shortly peter out and his best selling pigment become unavailable (art is such a tiny client of the colour world!) So he was faced with either soonish deleting it from his catalogue or… buy the whole lot left!! He did the second of course and you’re enjoying it to this day.
Watercolour is their biggest range -over 240 colours- and the one they are best known internationally for. Still acrylics and oils come in pretty large ranges too and, in these, some of the luminescent and PrimaTek® rare mineral pigments exist as well. All paint is made on the premises and from the ground up. And, in the case of the “rocks”, this is no idiomatic expression! Imagine having to reduce to fine fine particles a 10 kilo specimen of lapis-lazuli for example, well…. First you need to crush it with a jaw mill that uses thousands of pounds of pressure to break it to more manageable bits, then you further break it down with a hammer mill, then with a roll mill to bring those particles into the rank and turn them into uniform ones, finally in the triple roll they go with, in the case of watercolours let’s say, high quality gum Arabic. Quite a trip from their original homes in Minnesota, Utah, Alaska, Texas or even Afghanistan or Brazil.
So what has Daniel Smith brought to your palette?
- The largest range of quinacridones anywhere for sure, and what’s not to like about these vibrant pinks, ochres, golds and purples? They are both potent and luminous, can be lifted easily when still wet and I’m not really not quite sure why we’re even discussing potential faults about them… they are Perfect and Yummy tis all.
- Four types of luminescent pigments; the iridescents, pearlescents, interferences and duochromes.
- The 20 iridescents are metallics if you will and offer a reflected light in shades of jade to garnet, gold to sapphire, moonstone to ruby.
- Only two pearlescents, white and shimmer, these are transparent but will add an opalescent sheen on top of your existing colours.
- Interferences number seven shades. These interesting, also transparent pigments, have a flip effect and will refract and scatter light differently depending on where the light comes from and how dark or light your background is.
- The nearly twenty Duochromes totally bounce between two different colours and really are quite mysterious as a result.
- The PrimaTek® mineral pigments. These I do not know in other medium but in watercolours are totally delightful. For one, they have the most romantic (and unpronounceable) names: Zoisite, Diopside, Jadeite, Sugilite, Serpentine or Pipestone (literally the stone the American Indians made their pipes from.) Here, the very thing that in all other watercolour range is a major concern, granulation, is what makes some of them so very special. These will separate in little clusters which will give colour / texture effects something akin to marbling. Apparently with some pigments like Hematite Genuine you can even play with a magnet (whilst the paint is wet) to arrange the clusters at will. Plus some of them, like Amethyst, actually sparkle, in a manner more pleasing to me than metallic paint because they own their colour and they have these little interesting flecks here and there. Milling these guys, as said earlier, is hard work but finding the right particle size is the mastery… Too large = too gritty, too small = dull colour. At Daniel Smith they have also played with burning some of them, like Tiger’s eye which becomes redder through the change in oxidisation of the iron it contains and have reinvented the wheel with their Mayan blue genuine. I had noticed and played with the Mayan colours (in orange, red and violet too) and really liked these rather muted paints which still kept their vibrancy somehow. Then I learned the whole story! The Mayans invented the pigment long ago, but the secret of its manufacturing -although simple- disappeared with their civilisation. The mix is organic indigo with inorganic palygorskite clay. The clay absorbs the indigo, you heat the compound and hey presto Mayan Blue! And it’s lightfast too…
Voila for the colours and you might be happy to hear that none of them, whatever the range, are toxic. John simply won’t let his staff handle dangerous pigments when alternatives exist… Why, not even the cadmiums I ask? No, not even them!Now if you want to see if any of these interesting new hues and shades are right for you, get yourself one of their lovely “238 dot charts” to try them all! (A fab invention this, and one you can take so easily with you on a trip or to complement your more usual colours.) Still, I suggest you quickly invest in those that you find the most exciting as the moisture of the paint straight from the tube is incomparable and it allows you to work with a looseness which will really bring out the gorgeous granulation we spoke of.
To round off my visit John takes me back to the store under his office and offers me some watercolours sticks (I had never tried these and they are fun!) and some watercolour ground (akin to liquid paper this brilliant stuff.) Through one door you can see two employees pouring paint in a triple mill, through another an art class in progress. All is peaceful, colourful and creative… Ah making paint, selling paint, using paint, John is quite right you know… Nothing better in the world!
PS: I couldn’t help sharing with you these two stunning watercolours which are part of a series by Australian artist Christine Willcocks who, inspired by the Primatek® paints, beautifully rendered the actual rocks using their own pigment to paint them!