“A journey of a thousand strokes starts with one good brush.”*

Imagine my excitement when I heard there was a little town, Kumano, which was deemed THE brush capital of Japan and found out there were more than eighty brush makers still making brushes traditionally, a brush festival, a national calligraphy competition, a “day of the brush” week held there yearly AND a brush museum… Had to go, right? Yes, of course.
So now imagine our slight dismay as the -kind enough- coach driver, let us off at a crossroads of two country lanes with a very vague indication, that yes, yes it’s up there. To our right… fields, on our left… fields, downhill… fields. Uphill, we go! After a good kilometre a faint indication that we might be getting… somewhere turns up in the most unexpected shape of a water manhole. Oh, well, you know, in desperation anything will do! Surely these were brushes…

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And, sure enough, some three kms later, round a bend, what greets us is this most imposing and modern structure: the Fudenosatokobo, Hiroshima Prefecture, brush museum!

The astonishment of the ticket seller at seeing two panting gaijins turn up at her booth is equal to ours at having found this most improbable of places! And what a place. It is simply beautiful. Displays of gorgeous brushes, recent and venerable, made for artists and make-up artists alike, calligraphy artworks, a live brush maker and painter on silk, a very alluring shop, videos and pamphlets… The works! And, as you would have it, the biggest brush in the world (3,7 metres).

We spend a good two hours musing there and are then told to simply walk down further to find the old village and all its traditional workshops. We make our way to the one recommended as being the most ‘artistic’ and, like a beautiful flower that gives more and more fragrance, are not only delighted to find a lovely store full of the best brushes but are allowed to climb upstairs to the actual place they are made!

And, you know what? It was really a good idea I didn’t write or commit to having any knowledge before on oriental brushes… They are not made anything like at Escoda’s place I visited in Spain, nor for the same usage, nor from the same hairs, perhaps not even in the same spirit (an elusive notion I realise but one I felt very strongly in this animist country…. Dare I mention that there is even a “Brush Grave” in Kumano erected “to express gratitude to the spirits of brushes, Fude no Kokoro, and for the blessings of ancestors” and that once a year, during the Brush festival, they do a ritual cremation of old brushes sent from all over Japan to “honour their souls and the work they have done”!)

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When you’re born and bred in Paris you kind of expect everything to have been around for awhile, you know, as in a few centuries, but when you find out washi (paper) has been made in Japan for 13 centuries you’re pulled back in time somewhat more. Because who says paper, says ink (read my post from two months ago if you haven’t) and says brush… Right? And should I mention here ink stones as they are, after all, and as modest as you might think them, the fourth of the Four Treasures of the Writing Table…

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Kubo Shunman: “Desk with Writing Set and Plum Flowers”

Over time, brush makers developed an amazing array of shapes, ingredients and know how all over Japan. But it is recent circumstances rather than tradition that has made Kumano the place where 80% of brushes are produced and brush making here only dates back to the 1840’s. This area had little arable land and so men had to go away to find work, sometimes as far as Nara, from where they would bring back brushes and sell them until the day the idea came to them to try and make some themselves, combining the best techniques they had seen elsewhere. The recipe was good and now nearly 2000 people in Kumano work in the brush business and -even if they have turned to make-up brushes, as in France, to survive- they still hand produce over 15 million brushes a year here!

DSC02566As you probably know already, inks, watercolours, any waterborne paint in fact, is happier with a softer brush and one which “drinks” water better than a hog hair or one of the stiffer synthetics ones. In the west we have come up with the squirrel ‘mop’ brush or the sable (rounds usually) as suitable for the purpose. But even these do not drag the ink as far as a calligrapher of ‘characters’ might wish or need to go. They might, too, not have enough control… Because, actually, it is really hard to write with a brush! Not to mention excel in relaxed Zen spontaneity, that sophisticated art of artlessness, of the ‘controlled accident’.

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Katsushika Hokusai: Boys Learning to Write and Paint

What brush makers have in common though is fastidiousness. Hairs, any kind, have a way of twisting and hiding so there’s always a loose one, a longer one to be hunted, brought in line or eliminated. (Even hairdressers seem to always miss that one cheeky hair or little strand, have you noticed?) In Spain, the hairs arrive at the factory all clean and sorted in neat little bundles but in Kumano they really start from scratch, handfuls of animal hairs that first need to be all aligned the proper way -only the natural tip has the correct spring- and then rid of their animal grease. That first step is painstakingly done by one lady here today. Then another takes over and hand rolls small quantities of hair with rice husk ash -the same grey soft powder used to dry ink sticks. This operation is done quite a few times, then rolled into a cloth, the little bundles will go under a hot press that will help release more grease yet. Although all these operations could be somewhat repetitive, a sweet peaceful atmosphere prevails and all the ladies chat and chuckle as they work.

The hairs are…

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Kitagawa Utamaro “High-Ranking Courtesan” from the series Five Shades of Ink in the Northern Quarter – Metropolitan Museum of Art

Do you really want to know? Oh, OK, here we go: dog, wild boar, Persian cat, horse, pig, fowl (for decorative feathers at the top or even entirely made of those!), mouse, rabbit, deer, raccoon, badger, squirrel, goat (and more specifically its goatee, chest and long upper leg hairs)… Yes, we have used all that we could, all over the world!

DSC02536When ready to use, the hairs are cut at their base to the desired length and, as elsewhere where good brushes are made, these are aligned, combed and loose hairs are pulled out. But they are not shaped into tufts to produce a point, rather stretched in a long zigzag row which will wrap around either itself or, tricks of tricks, will wrap around an inner brush of stronger hairs (let’s say horse) while the outside one might be of longer and floppier hairs (like goat). This way, as you press your brush on paper, first will be released the ink from the outer hair, then the resistance of the inner hair will allow you to go further, with more control, and then the longer hair can take over again as you release your brush and the tail of the floppy hairs caresses the paper.

The major other difference in the making of an oriental brush is that they don’t use glue because hairs when burnt in tight little bundles like these ideally singe to form a dry firm crust. As she scorches them, the lady ties them with a linen string that went through her mouth and that wet string will tighten them further as the string dries. The little garlands of brush tips thus produced are ever so sweet but although they were not doing it that day, the lady in charge of it (and on the poster as she has been recognised with the title of “National treasure in craftsmanship”), showed me all the steps and it’s a full on operation I can tell you. (Plus it apparently doesn’t just stink, it stinks like Osaka fish… and that sounded ultra vile!)

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Oriental brushes are generally made with much longer tips, suitable for ink work, and are held straight, not horizontally, above the support. They also come in sizes incomparable to those used in normal ink or watercolour work. For the simple brushes, the tips are usually inserted directly into wood or bamboo handles (sometimes with a plastic ferule of sorts). However, for all the larger and more precious ones they go into specially sculpted, sometimes lacquered, wood or even stone casings that are attached to the handle.

Of course there are so many types of brushes made in Japan that what I saw that day is only the tip of the brush if I may say. Other techniques must exist for specific shapes and results but… this is what I know for now… thanks for reading and being patient as I gather my little bits of hands-on knowledge! And, if anything was a little lost in translation, as the saying goes: “Even Buddhist teachings scrolls have brush slips” (koubou ni mo fude no ayamari).*

fat lady red and black

 

Fudenosatokobo Brush Museum, 5-17-1 Nakamizo, Kumano-cho, Aki-gun, Hiroshima Prefecture; and the brush factory I visited in Kumano is called Houkodou, email: info@houkodou.jp

 

 

* Of course this last one is a real Japanese proverb, whereas my title was just a parody of the famous one about human travels and endeavors…

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(OUOUH not sure the court calligrapher is amused!) Yashima Gakutei: The Heian Court Calligrapher Ono no Tōfū; from Four Friends of the Writing Table for the Ichiyō Poetry Circle

 

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Calligraphy, the art of fin(er) writing – Part 2: in bed with Eric de Tugny

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For one long hot summer, working in a nearly deserted art gallery in Paris, I tried my hand at calligraphy. After a week or so working there I had even grown bored of reading (me!) and thought this would be a dignified enough occupation if ever the lone patron of the day should wish to look over my shoulder. I invested in a calligraphy pen with lots of different nibs, an array of coloured inks and a very dull manual. Soon enough I understood that calligraphy is even more painstakingly precise than drawing with no real artistic license permitted (until you reached total mastery that is) and that is has its own rhythm which is… SLOW. Actually it’s more a balance between a stillness of mind, a precision of hand and a brave heart… It takes courage to “attack” that blank space knowing that the slightest hesitation will break the flow and leave a microscopic puddle of ink where the line broke, spoiling the whole thing. Although a fine art, it is closer to meditation than to painting I believe. Something like a breath made visible in ink…

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At 22, zen practices and the impatient girl I was, were not quite compatible (if I’m honest, still not sadly) and when the summer ended and I had hand-written three full sets of around 800 envelopes for the invitations to the next openings I let my pen dry in its case and that was the end of my calligraphy career… it did improve my hand writing though! I have kept a nostalgia, bought many nibs and ink bottles I didn’t need (but then that’s not my fault at all as they are totally irresistible) and am so very delighted to meet this morning Eric de Tugny, owner of the delighful store Mélodies Graphiques in the Marais in Paris and calligrapher extraordinaire.

As I push the door, I notice in the window a large bottle of Violette de Cannes which looks more like a perfume than an ink, an array of nibs, old fashioned naturalist and calligrapher implements and… a very beautiful drawing of a spider (I think). Although insects are truly not my forte, they are Eric’s absolute passion and it turns out he not only has an exhibition of his drawings Elytres et Carapaces (Elytra and Shells) in Paris that March 2015 but also that he’s on his way to Costa Rica with a expedition of volcanologists to discover some new delights to draw!

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Was I expecting to meet one of the only five “scientifically exact” insect drawers in France? Would I have guessed there were even five? Hum… But I can understand that after writing over ten thousand envelopes a year for weddings and invitations, the man needs to turn his skills to something else. Although some of his jobs are fun because that sealed envelope with a letter inside might be for a period film, or that poem for a sophisticated lover (with awful handwriting?) or might involve carefully adding names to an old family tree, mostly these days, it’s envelopes (1 euro a pop).

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It seems I am not the only one who can’t resist a cute bottle of ink or a pretty hand-made card as Eric’s old fashioned store is never empty that morning and so we continue chatting while he elegantly wraps some sticks of sealing wax, a few nibs, a dry stamp he has designed for a client or rolls a sheet of wrapping paper pretty enough to be framed. Finally I dare to ask the question: “Was he already good at writing when he was young?” but what I really mean to ask is: “Is there a chance in hell for the average / bad scribbler to ever approach his level of skill?”

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He laughs at my demand and yes, it turns out his father had beautiful hand writing he admired greatly and so Eric worked hard from an early age at his… An appreciation of reading and writing seems to run in his family as his mother used to be a book binder, then selected stationery for the Parisian department store Galeries Lafayette. Helping her is how he met first the distributor of El Papiro (the glorious Florentine “papier à cuve” marbled paper maker) and eventually took over his job. But it’s with the Rossis (also producers of refined paper in Florence) that he became not only friends with the whole family but even contributed some artwork of his own to their range of postcards. He nearly opened a El Papiro store in Paris but Mélodies Graphiques was born instead, some nearly thirty years ago, and I get the feeling he doesn’t mind being a free man, choosing with discernment which other tools of his trade: nibs, feathers, inks, etc. to stock.

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You think you can wash your nibs in water and just let them dry? Think again. Although they are supposed to be made in stainless steel, Eric is positive they will rust if you do not dry them thoroughly.

Many come here for advice as Eric can really explain why you should get this 1950’s nib (not made anymore but he still has a bit of stock) rather than any other as it is so perfectly suited to your purpose being so flexible and flowy. Of course I had to buy one myself after hearing him talk about it to a client (don’t laugh) but I did resist investing in a woodcock feather, a specialty still made by one person in France especially for miniature painters who praise its finesse and delicacy, although it was most beautiful.

As for a good all rounder ink for calligraphy? Eric swears by the Encres Herbin made here in Paris since 1670 if you please! They are much “lighter” than shellac inks and can be used with a brush, a nib and in a fountain pen. As with any that can be used in a fountain pen, these inks are dyes not pigment inks and do not dry waterproof… a good thing since otherwise how could you tell he cried when he read your letter? (In truth most inks -shellac or acrylic- are not suitable for a fountain pen as it will kill your pen when it dries clogging the super fine little tube the ink flows through… with the possible exception of inks for technical pens -although these do dry up eventually too.) The range of colours of the Herbin inks is really tempting but remember too these inks fade -which is not such a drama as usually sketches and letters are stored away from the light- but perhaps not so suitable  for making artworks. You could try however their Encre authentique, also known as “Lawyers’ Ink” as this intense black ink was used by French notaries to write official deeds and acts… it comes with a three century fadeproof warranty! (Its exceptional longevity is due to the Campeche wood tannin added.)

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Voilà, I do hope one day soon you will have the sweet pleasure of pushing that door yourself and being greeted by the charming man who cares for this somewhat dying art of calligraphy with such a passion…

Mélodies Graphiques 10 Rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, 75004 Paris – Phone: 01 42 74 57 68

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Not only does Eric pen so many envelopes, he also receives quite a few fabulous ones…

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Calligraphy, the art of fin(er) writing – Part 1

At some stage in the Western world most of our languages made the switch to a restricted number of symbolically meaningless shapes which, combined, made the infinity of words we needed to share our ideas and our emotions. There are still variations among alphabets and it took a while to agree on the number of letters in each language. Along the way, we have attempted to infuse them with some power and meaning but have mostly come up short in this regard. (We even might have lost something magical and vital when that switch happened, read the gorgeous book by David Abram The Spell of the sensuous if you would like to explore that avenue.)Calligraphie Francaise 1

Still, why is it then that we enjoy letters so? That our initials are important to us… enough anyway to emboss them on our luggage or embroider them on our best linen -granted not so much anymore perhaps. Beautiful handwriting is still admired of course but “in the good old days” elegant penmanship was most certainly a sine qua none skill for a man or woman “of letters.” Some continue to practice that noble art and even get paid to embellish envelopes or write suave hand-written letters… Such is the life of Eric de Tugny, calligraphe extraordinaire in Paris, France and owner of Mélodies Graphiques… we will come to him in my next post!

11th century Letter from Chinese scholar Zeng Gong

Collectors are willing to pay a fortune for beautiful calligraphy such as this 11th century letter from Chinese scholar Zeng Gong which sold last month for USD$32m!

Most languages not using the Latin alphabet have stuck to the original formula of stylized root symbols. Alone or grouped to make meaningful word-symbols these drawn representations have created and sustained important lineages of calligraphers… dare I refer to the Oriental ones as men “of the strokes”, while tagging Arabic calligraphers men “of the curves?” Certainly all of them as skilled as any fine artist would be.

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It has occurred to me only recently that, however different the results, the choice of supports and tools -from brushes of all shapes and ilk, to qalams made of reed or bamboo to an array of differently shaped nibs-, the common denominator to all calligraphy is… INK!

Well maybe not this guy!

Well maybe not for this man, practicing with water on the pavement!

Luxor_temple_16And although ink has been developed just about everywhere on the globe at some stage or another, the delightful Seshat, also known as “Mistress of the House of Books”, Egyptian goddess of reading, writing, arithmetic, architecture and credited with inventing writing might have also (while she was at it!) come up with the recipe for ink. Certainly a most useful ingredient for the scribes who would for centuries fill papyrus scroll after papyrus scroll with exquisite hieroglyphs drawn in deep black ink.

She might have been the first but I learnt, at the age of five years and in a rather indelible way, that ink came from China. That’s what the label on that big black bottle I reached for on my mother’s chest of drawers long ago most certainly said. A very enticing bottle which I tried to grab, missed and which then rolled, without any possible redemption, in a very artistic crash unto my parents’ new wall to wall carpet. And encre de Chine is quite impossible to get rid of… precisely why it is sought after so! (By the way, I am talking about the same one you probably know under the name of Indian ink, a misnomer most certainly due to the boats arriving in England from India… but not the ink.)

IMG_6062It is only quite recently that I understood that encre de Chine was developed in China in the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. leaving behind plant dyes and graphite which had been used for centuries prior but produced poor or greyish results. The new process consisted of allowing little oil lamps with a conic hat to burn until all the oil had disappeared, the lamp left to cool and the soot then collected. That pigment*, mixed with animal glues, would then be kneaded and beaten and trampled on until it was shiny and smooth enough to be easily molded into cakes. Left to dry, the practical little sticks could produce ink on demand just by adding water all over the Empire. For some reason (don’t ask me I think I’m past trying to understand this passion of mine), it prompted a true and vivid image in my mind. I could just see the rows of little lamps burning, the black room in which it all happened, the men in conic hats sweeping gently the soot away. I anticipated easily finding a drawing or a Japanese woodblock print of this, after all ink is a pretty serious business in China and Japan -who stole the recipe some time during the seventh century. But no luck so far…

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No ink war was officially recorded either… except perhaps that one?

And so it is not without some trepidation that I pushed the door of the Kobaien Co. in Nara (Japan) two months ago. We chose that particular factory because it is the oldest one, fifteen generations of owners have prided themselves in making the finest sumi ink here, but an appointment I have not and no idea either if they will let us visit their premises. Of course, the shop is open to all and it’s already quite a treasure trove of ink sticks plus a few brushes and vermillion paste for the seals. But I want more! So we patiently wait until a lovely young man, apparently the English-speaking employee here, comes along. We try to explain our quest and… yes! He will translate for us while the more knowledgeable lady in charge tells us in Japanese the story of the firm and explains the steps of ink making.

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It’s a bit hard conveying my bliss at seeing my “vision” come true. To these people who have been producing ink for four centuries and see it every day in the making, I must sound somewhat overly enthusiastic but I don’t care, this is what I’ve come to Japan for and there it is…

DSC02462Step one, the production of soot in the lamps… The longer the wick, the faster the burning the less fine the pigment particles. Also, the quality of the oil will have an incidence on the quality of the ink, it’s darkness and hue… bluish, greyish, black or blacker still.

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Step two, the melting of the animal glues and the mixing with the pigment + a small amount of perfume to cover the smell of the glues. (I have read that in ancient times the calligraphers would make the trip themselves to buy their inks and taste them -literally- to judge their finesse.)

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Step three the kneading of the paste you have obtained… feet an option!ink making nara feet

Step four each lump is weighed and then rolled by hand again…

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then inserted into a wooden mold (the molds are engraved in reverse so that an inscription can be read later on the stick)

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Step five, the little cakes go to dry in big wooden trays buried under layers of rice husks ashes… it’s very very fine (think rice powder) and will absorb already a lot of the humidity.

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Step six is the second phase of drying in which neat string tied rows of sticks will gently sway in an air controlled room for weeks and become rock hard. (This room is a display one only as the door is opened too often and that would not suit the precious sticks.)

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Step seven is shell polishing of the sticks and eventually, for the better inks, hand painting or gilding of the inscription or even the whole stick. (These steps are performed in the summer months when the humidity halts the ink making.)

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Student quality Sumi ink is often found in bottles but good quality and variety is found mainly in sticks. Although lightfast, most sumi inks do not dry totally waterproof and it might be a good idea to test yours if you want to use it next to watercolours for example. They also dry more matte than “Indian ink” does as encre de Chine contains shellac -a lacquer added to give Indian ink a shiny sheen which also turns it waterproof. Apart from that they are made in the same way but Indian ink is usually sold in a bottle (haha, tell me about it!)

Some of the shades of grey and black the different quality sticks can turn into.

Some of the shades of black the sticks made here can turn into.

* And what is the name of that pigment made from burning oil in little lamps? Common, you know… the answer is in the question!

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Kobaien Co. Ltd is the sumi-e ink factory and store I visited:

7 Banchi, Tsubai-cho, Nara, Japan

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while Kinoshitashousendou is the name of the little store/factory, also in Nara, where you can buy vermillion paste for your seal, http://kinoshitashousendou.co.jp/

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Pigments… from ancient recipes to ‘modern’ colours

I first discovered the PIGMENT store in Tokyo on the web… it arrived one morning in my daily Flavorpill (thank you guys by the way you do an awesome job of weaving an international artistic community), and after clicking on the link, instantly, just like that, I was in love!

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In a second I knew I needed to get to Japan some day and… many many moons later an opportunity came while my son was studying there. He was raving about Japan but little did he know that taking mamma on tour would lead him into dark little alleys where ink makers still produced the pigment for their sumi sticks, up long country roads to small factories where charming old ladies were making brushes in the same way they have been made for centuries or to the oldest paper store at the other end of Tokyo… which is BIG!  (Actually, I suspect he had an idea but perhaps not how challenging it would be to translate words like lightfastness, particles, rabbit skin glue and hog hair!) Without him though I could not have done it, nor have understood at all the wonderful people we met, uber skilled artisans but no linguists!

DSC02705That morning, again, we totally underestimate the time it will take us to cross inner city Tokyo and get thoroughly lost outside our metro station… a taxi saves our lives and the little dignity we have left when we arrive disheveled and panting into this remarkably pristine and cool store where Marina Mito, the public relation lady of the company, has patiently waited for us. This is my last day in this country and I have seen quite a few elegant stores let me tell you, plus art stores are always beautiful (to me anyway!), but PIGMENT takes my breath away…

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It is a brand new store too, established just a few years ago by -of all things- a storage company who thought it was a good idea to support artists so they would use storage space further down the track… that seems to me the most roundabout way for doing something I have ever heard of (but maybe some of it was lost in translation!) However in these last days I have come to admire how incredibly important it seems to be for the Japanese people to honor and keep alive their many traditions and I respect this immensely too. A major incentive in beginning this crazy quest of mine was the sadness I felt when I saw how so many small businesses in France -button makers, door handle makers, mattress cloth makers, passementerie makers and, yes, brush makers too- have left France or passed away because of the profit/bottom line approach of the last twenty years… and some were perfectly financially viable mind you (but labor was cheaper elsewhere.)

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Anyway, back to PIGMENT… It takes a while for me to even comprehend what I’m looking at. I have NEVER seen so many pigments in my life. (The brochure boasts over 4200 and I’ll take their word for it!) I didn’t even know there could be that many pigments suitable for an artist’s purpose but slowly I go down the aisles and after a little while begin to understand they seem grouped in batches (of ten it turns out). Ten white bottles sitting on a wall… humm rings a bell but probably the wrong one (and you really do not want any of these to accidentally fall!) In reality it is the same pigment but “diluted” ten times. Of course you can’t do that right? Pigments are insoluble. But it turns out that if you rinse them through water and sieve them, slowly by surely with finer and finer grids you will get samples of coarser to finer particles… and these don’t catch the light in quite the same way and so we don’t see them as quite the same colour! AMAZING!

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But of course dear Watson, I did know that! That’s how artists were duped during the Renaissance into buying second or third quality ultramarine (not that the “washed down” subsequent versions didn’t have colour but they failed to keep the amazing intensity or brilliance that patrons were prepared to pay a price higher than gold for then.) When we play in oil or acrylics we mix our colours a fair bit and layer them too, so we don’t really need that many colour spaces as starting points. However, if you look at some watercolour ranges… 244 colours in Daniel Smith, 110 in Schmincke, 96 in Winsor and Newton, 108 in Holbein, that’s many more than in the average oil or acrylic range. Oriental paintings are mainly done on paper or silk so there’s hardly a second chance, what you apply is what you’ll get. So if you wish to be accurate and consistent, it might be a good idea to start with the colour you really want, especially in watercolours which are prone to migrating to a paler version of themselves if you add a bit too much water.

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Is that how they suggest you do it here? It was a bit hard to really understand but it seems that yes, the traditional Japanese way of making colours is for the artist to simply mix in a shallow dish a pigment with an animal hide glue. Melt the glue in a little bain-marie and mix it with your pigments for a home made watercolour/ink sort of paint. You don’t need that much glue either as your paper/silk support will do the job of drinking in that pigment and not releasing it later.

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This artist -at the Fudenosatokobo brush museum- was certainly working just like that and making his colours straight from little vials of pigment into a myriad small dishes.

 

DSC02688Fifty kind of animal glues are on offer at PIGMENT and Dr Kei Iwaizumi, the lab chief who I meet this morning, has a PHD in… glues! I really wish we shared a language to be able to pick his brains somewhat more but I do end up understanding that the glues he recommends for paint making are amber coloured ones. So not the fish glues which are translucent and the best ones for paper, not the really dark rawhide of deer or donkey ones which are used in sume-i black ink making but any of the middle tones amber ones (like our better known rabbit skin one). There must be nuances to this otherwise why would you need fifty shades of glues but…

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Do they have pigments I’ve never seen before? I should imagine so but again not really sure… I managed to single out one family I had never heard of, Gofun, which are white pigments made from shells. These produce a white which is indispensable in creating a Japanese style painting and is also used for priming.

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Gofun also turns into an extender pigment in Suihi pigments which are produced by refining with water (水sui) and then drying (干hi) on a cedar board. The particles of Suihi pigments are very fine and produce great color. But what are the original pigments made of? Where do they come from? Would there be an equivalent in our pharmacopeia? I can’t tell at all… they do have lovely names though… just not ones I can relate to.

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Pigments not only come here as dry pigments in jars, you can also get some metallic ones in leaves as they are too soft to handle otherwise. Obviously the traditional gold and silver leaf so often used in Oriental art is offered in variations but also tin, aluminum, copper, brass and the like and some much more mysterious ones like “blue or red pearl leaves” or even a black leaf which they describe as “made by changing the color itself rather than adding color by smoking the silver leaf. This is extremely fragile when compared to the other leaves, and cracks and color unevenness is sometimes mixed in.” I’m racking my brains trying to think of how to use a metallic black leaf with these characteristics… any suggestions?

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I never thought of it as ‘pigment’ but the red paste still used by everybody in Japan for their seals is mainly cinnabar/vermillion (a mix of pigments actually) and, even in this day and age, you are expected to own a personal seal to apply it to official documents such as your marriage license for example, so there’s still a demand for it.

Vermillion pigment seal paste

Although the paint making methods are traditional, not all the pigments on the shelves at PIGMENT are. At the end of the line you hit the lovely metallic, pearlescent and irridescent ones which are very recent contributions to the wider family. Seeing how gel pens (invented and made in Japan) offer arrays of glitter and metallic hues, I’m not surprised to hear these are very popular pigments.

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The store also offers workshops with painters and art materials specialists on how to make your paint, or use traditional tools… “They will bring you new techniques and infinite expressions to support the polishing of an artist’s sensibility.” So if you feel in need of a little polishing of your sensibility… you know what to do… contact them, arrange to attend a workshop or, at the very least, when in Tokyo…. don’t miss this little gem!

Did I mention they carry the most exquisite assortment of brushes too?

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And an extensive range of ink sticks? (Not just black.)

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And that the employees all wear the cutest outfit? (I want one!)

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The PIGMENT store, 2-5-5 Harbor One Bldg. 1F, Higashi-Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo 140-0002 – Tel: 03-5781-9550 – mail: pigment@terrada.co.jp

Pigments are sold in small quantities -as little as 15gr- and all pigments / glues are available online… not that easy to pick a colour on your screen though.

In the mood to read more about pigments? Go to my pages…

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Filed under art stores I like, binders, pigments, watercolours

in bed with… 166 Golden owners!

OK, now you think this is one big joke but no… they all own the joint… what can a girl do but say the truth?DSC00767When Mark and Barbara Golden realized a few years back that none of their children had a real interest in taking over Golden Artist Colors, they made the best move you can imagine… and decided to sell it to their employees. The takeover is taking time (the whole process will be completed in a few more years) but since then each and every one of the folks working there are already owners… pretty cool, hey? And one more reason you have to love them, right? But I’ve waxed lyrical enough last time, now let’s dive in the infinity of products they actually make!

(Acrylics is the base of it all of course and if you want to know more about the history of Golden Paints I suggest you read my previous post.)

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As I approach the plant that morning, I know that my insatiable curiosity will be feed by the amazing line of people I will meet that day… First a chat with Mark Golden, son of the founder Sam, then a tour of the plant with him, then a meeting with Sarah Sands, head of the complaints department (ops I meant the materials specialist team… that’s all the wonderful people who answer your thousands of anxious questions every year), lunch with everyone, then onto Jim Hayes who’s been head of the lab for 30 years and his accomplice, Ulysses Jackson, who’s been here “only” for ten.

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Touring the factory part of the building with Mark (the place where paint is actually made), I cannot resist comparing it to a industrious kitchen! Everywhere spatulas, large pots, huge mixers, precise dosage equipment… all producing yummy colourful results! Mark laughs and shares that their first mill was a coconut crusher but their first real mill came from a chocolate manufacturer… see and you don’t even put an ounce on when you indulge in paint (much the better option… even if chocolate helps!)

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I’m determined to leave that evening with a recipe that has eluded me so far. How do you make acrylic paint? I know, it’s a pretty basic question but like Béchamel or Hollandaise sauce I’m convinced there’s an art to it…  I’m also aware that could you meet Frédéric Delair, Chef at the famous restaurant La Tour d’Argent, you should ask him about his famous duck in blood sauce dish rather than white sauce but here I am with Jim Hayes, director of the lab (ah ha you even call that in an industrial kitchen don’t you?) and Master-Chef here at Golden asking just that. He seems a bit thrown by my simple request but kindly goes through the steps with me.

And of course, unlike Béchamel (read oil paint) which has a respectable history of trial and testing, what they have been trying to achieve here is a sauce that never existed before! Acrylics suitable for artists are not that old and the first true polymer emulsion only goes back to 1953… but we’ve come a long way in these years. Trial and error, formulating, reformulating, adding a touch more of this, less of that, has been quite a process. Paint at first cracked, hardened, moulded, stank and dried but the aim has been the same all along… it’s not about just making a good paint but wanting it to surpass everything else (and of course old fashioned Béchamel) by inventing an exceptional sauce. One that their customers will enjoy and one that will still be around in 5 centuries. Yes, nothing short of posterity is aimed for in this place!

The recipe (well actually recipes because not only each pigment is different but they also make paint in a variety of viscosities) is now virtually perfect. For each and every paint/colour it’s actually an elaborate and different one. Acrylic paint might not have quite the ‘personality’ of the person who makes them so much as oil paint has but you have to get your formula spot on. And let me tell you it’s a careful balance of requirements and ingredients which will make a happy paint… too much this, and that happens, too little this, and that happens… Oh well, if you’re game, there it is:

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  1. Take the chosen quantity of pigment and disperse it in water. Some thirsty pigments will drink the stuff, some hydrophobic ones will need more coaxing… add surfactants (wetting and dispersing agents) in proportion to each pigment’s need and mix thoroughly.
  2.  Pour the mixture into your Magimix (a coconut crusher will also do the job if you happen to have one!) and add ceramic or steel balls to help break down the clusters of pigment so that now (or later) flocculation of pigments doesn’t happen…… little pockets of pure colour exploding on your canvas are not acceptable but these brilliant guys seem to have a fatal attraction for one another! Alternatively pour into your pasta making machine. This operation can be long. Up to a few days in the Magimix or up to 8 passes through the rollers of your pasta machine (remember to tighten the pressure each time).
  3. Add the binder. The pigment dispersion thus obtained is now ready for a last trip in the mill with the addition of the 100% polymer binder that forms and holds the paint film together, giving it it’s longevity and chemical properties. And in that binder a few very useful chemical ‘spices’ have been added (that’s the secret bit the chefs never really explain. It usually goes something like this… add a pinch of this, a sprinkle of that, a handful of… then taste and accommodate to your taste!) Of course here we’re speaking controlled quantities, still there are so many variables it makes my head spin.
  4. The spices:

Thickening agents will help define the viscosity of your paint.

Emulsifiers will prevent them from binding together before the liquid evaporates.

Preservatives against bacteria that not only thrive in water but actually like some of the raw ingredients in the binder. These will stop your paint from moulding.

Defoamers because the surfactants used for lowering the tension between the water and the pigment at the initial stage (and useful too for the pigment dispersion and the plastic binder to agree with one another in the last stage), do cause one issue in the case of paint… they foam (which is why chemists love them when it comes to making detergent, soap and other bubbly stuff!) Defoamers help to release air bubbles and the foam retained there.

Stabilizers are useful too or your paint might become solid rock when it leaves New Berlin in the middle of winter and freezes in the truck and… might stay like that! ASTM* standards require paint to withstand 5 Freeze-Thaw cycles with no loss of quality, hence stabilizers. Rain, shine or worse, properly sealed in its jar or tube, Golden’s acrylic paint should be able to sleep there quite happily for up to 25 years. Which is great because you might not use that colour too often, right?

Rheology Modifiers are additives that controls the rheological characteristics of the liquid formulation. These give acrylic paint its thixotropic nature…. the property that allows it to be pushed by your brush (and to extend a bit / a lot) then retract to dry and form the film.

Retarders are added in some formulas (as in the High Flows or the Open range) to give you more time to play with your paint.

And maybe other secret ingredients… I really don’t know.

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5. Last step (and I cannot guarantee this process happens in all paint making factories but it does at Golden) is the evacuation chamber (sorry if it sounds a bit sinister). This is a vacuum chamber which rids the paint of any leftover pockets/bubbles of air and the foam contained in them. It’s a tricky stage when you need a film of paint thin enough or it won’t work but, of course, you do not want your paint to dry in the process.

My God! That’s it! If you’ve done all of the above perfectly you should get… a deliciously creamy, smooth polymer emulsion! (Emulsion as in a mayonnaise! Rather than a white sauce in truth.) Personally I’ll stick to mayonnaise-making but if you wanted to give it a go for any reason, start at least from pigment dispersion to which you add the binder of your choice (ready-made with all the additives already in there). If it’s because you want to premix a huge quantity of colour for all the backgrounds in a series of painting… do it! If you wanted a really weird consistency/texture you might want to ask Golden to make the custom product you are after. For some artists they produce only this one colour, for others hundreds of colours. Or a particular viscosity. Sometimes it’s even a really unique gesso… How pedantic can we get!

OK so that paint looks perfect, ready to dive into the tubes but now… in come the testers! Roll of the drum. Enters Ulysses Jackson, drawdown bar in hand. (Ulysses is an artist who formulates and tests paints all day, paints at night and, presumably, sees new colours in his dreams!)

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Ulysses is no sous-chef, Mark calls him “the in-house paint geek”

The drawdown test it essential to determine if a batch of paint is consistent in its colour, sheen, clarity, flexibility, drying time with preceding batches and to make sure there are no impurities. That sample will be filed so that if a problem occurs they can take it out and talk with you with that exact same paint sample in their hand. Pretty cool, hey? But pretty usual too, most companies do that and you should find an obscure batch number somewhere on your tube or tub. What is rarer is to send samples of that paint to a “fence test” as Golden does. Literally they will sit out there in the rain, the snow, the polluted atmosphere, the grit of the desert, on a fence at a 45º degree angle to the sun for some time before making the trip back to New Berlin to be tested for resistance, lightfastness, etc.

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Some other testing can be done in house of course… Typical ones are resistance to solvents (for when you take off that varnish) and adhesion testing by making uniform cuts in the paint and trying to pull it off with a specific adhesive film… the number of squares pulled off will give you an indication of adhesion on that surface because of course you paint on canvas, but also on wood, metal, plastic, found objects and what not.

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Finally in the tube it goes…

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with an informative label, and a hand painted swatch on it too!

When Ulysses is not testing this or that, he’s dreaming of new products… “What more tubs on the shelves??” I shout virtually in horror… please take pity on us poor retailers who have a hard time understanding what already exists! But it turns out that a lot of what he does is actually testing products to see if they will perform as well or better than existing ones. The whole of the “plastics” industry -usually more concerned about coatings and cosmetics- puts dozens of products on the market and some could offer an improvement on the one used at present…. Then there’s the construction materials, the aggregates -think pumice-, then glass beads or glitter… who knows what might be out there they could use. OMG!!! Ulysses defends himself, saying that everything they have developed was a response to exchanges with artists, from which they came to believe that new ranges or a specific ground for example could really achieve something not previously available.

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And of course that’s how the lovely Qor range came about. Art restorers were already making their own paints with this acrylic binder called Aquazol because it is… water soluble! Painting restorers have, as their primary rule, that their work must be reversible. For example, if further down the track, their retouching job ages in a different way from the art work, it will need to be removed…

Eventually they turned to the renowned master-chefs at Golden to ask them if they might have an interest in developing a range of watersoluble acrylic paint…They had and they did and so, after much testing, you now can find on the shelves this interesting new product unlike anything on the planet… an acrylic watercolour! It’s more vibrant than normal watercolours, hues remain brilliant and, no, not glossy that’s not the word, more present perhaps than in a good quality watercolour…. I’m just wondering now if it’s because they too have a white, milky binder which obviously dries transparent but compensates in the eye for the normal fading of watercolour paints when they sink into the paper…. hmmm interesting, forgot to ask that one. At the time, it was such a new product I had not really had a chance to play with it. I have now and it certainly feels more bodied than the normal watery nature of watercolour. Get a tube, see for yourself if you like it, it’s a slightly different animal but you might enjoy the exciting colour marks it leave on paper.

And then finally, sometime between all their Golden acrylic colours and Qor‘s birth, Williamsburg Oils entered their lives! The company existed already and had been created and run by a friend and New York neighbour of the Goldens, Carl Plansky. Carl, a pigment fan, traveled the world in search of the most beautiful raw materials in the world, importing pigments from dozens of countries… and developed the most extensive and superb range of earth and ochres oil colours anywhere (there’s some iridescent and interference colours too!!) After he passed away, his wish came true, and in 2010 Golden took over his company.

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Their slogan these days is “Oils with an New York attitude”. Cool but… what does that mean? Well it means this time and tested paint was not only incorporated lovingly into the bigger Golden picture, its personnel all brought on board and into the fold but that, as ever, there was no respect for tradition per se, so it was tested and tried by all as if oil paint was this really new thing no one had ever seen before! Because… that’s what the Golden team does and does well. Suddenly their newsletter Just Paint was full or articles about “Does oil paint ever dry?”,  “Volume, Weight and Pigments to oil ratios” and other fascinating info I had never read before about… oil paint!

Voila, if this has not convinced you these folks make paint with a passion equal to yours at painting, I don’t know what will! (Yes, they want to sell it in the end but you too, I imagine, want to sell your artworks…) Isn’t it pleasant though to press a tube of pure dedication on your palette???

PS: Sorry for not giving you the “exact” recipe for acrylics, that’s a trade secret of course but one that Golden shares, yes, but with select conservators in museums to which they give a precise list of all ingredients in a few colours/paints so as to give them a reference point for testing variations… see, they really mean to be around for centuries to come and… who knows?

Sarah Sands* Sarah Sands has coined it the “Awfully Slow and Tedious Methods” society but ASTM really stands for “American Society for Testing and Materials”! This organization develops / publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services. In the art paint industry, volunteers from reputable and competing brands (Gamblin, Winsor and Newton, Liquitex, Natural Pigments, Blick… Golden) sit together with conservators, scientists and consumers to work for the common good of the industry and agree on standards that should be met for a product sitting on the shelves under the label “gesso” for example. Artists often buy a product like this on price alone and yet it is the very foundation of their artwork! Available gessos are then tested for flexibility and absorbency on a double blind study and  twenty nine years and many blind tests later, they agree on what are the basic requirements for such a product… Me thinks you can really trust a product that claims ASTM standards and bares that label!

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PPS: I have finally finished my Acrylic and Vinyl pages (YIPEE!!!), so if you wanted more information about Acrylic Paint, Acrylic Gessos and Grounds, Acrylic Pastes, Gels , Mediums and Additives or Varnishes for Acrylic paintings, you know what to do… just click on the words!

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If you’ve enjoyed reading this… share and like this page. It will be my reward for hours of research! I would also love to build this art materials community… in doing so, I can thank the lovely people who have generously given of their time, opened their labs and factories, given tips and information I can now share with YOU!

 

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Filed under acrylics, honoring excellence, in bed with..., what's in it?

in bed… at… the Golden residency! (I wish)

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You didn’t know you really wanted one of these beautiful, curiously shaped red North American barn did you? But you do! Give it a minute’s thought… can’t you just picture your studio (huge of course) under the eaves there, while below smaller and cosier rooms would open onto the grass, the myriad wildflowers in summer,the white snowy slopes in winter while the fireplace in your back is roaring… Right! You want one of these. We all do.

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Well, if you are a good enough girl (or boy) you might just be one of those lucky three selected to live and work in one for a whole month. And yes, on the ground floor you will get the loveliest bedroom, community kitchen and lounge with wooden furniture, all appliances useful to an artist (you know large comfy armchairs, art books to browse, vases full of sunflowers) but of course the real treat is… up there! Where a large open studio awaits you, fitted with tools and tables and easels and… down the corridor… a sort of stockroom with the entire range of Golden paints on its shelves. Yours for the taking of course! Are you awake? or is this some sort of dream from which you will wake up the ever struggling artist?

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But these goodies don’t come alone. Behind the shelf (perhaps even inside the jar or the tube he’s been around that long) you will find Jim Hayes who has been for almost 30 years director of the Golden Artist Colors lab… nearly as long as the company has existed. His job is not only to head the team that creates all the formulas of their ever growing product lines, he also does custom work for artists. This is the only place in the world I believe where this is an option and, when you are chosen for a residency, it’s usually because you are a very special artist. I don’t mean by that an AAAmazing one but an interesting one. You want to play with acrylics…. you want to stretch their possibilities… you want this AND you want just the opposite of this…. on the same canvas of course. Maybe the paint you want doesn’t even exist but, if it’s an option, Jim’s your man… Or Ulysses Jackson, which I met too, and is one of the lab specialists who works under Jim. He’s been here over a decade and has worked in the lab since he started. He is an accomplished artist also and has a few answers up his sleeves.

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Jim Hayes, “one of the most talented chemist there is” according to Marking Golden

But why would these guys get paid to do this? In short, for you. For the artists at the residence this month or for you in Papua New Guinea if this is where you’re painting and having an issue with a paint glossy enough but drying too fast. And they are doing it because that’s how, since the very beginning of this company, they have found out how to make a better paint and make artists happy to use acrylics along the way. It’s probably impossible to understand the level of integrity and research done here if one doesn’t back track a bit to the earlier years.

Yes it all began with oil paint, apparently from a suggestion by artist Emil Ganso to young artists Leonard Bogdanoff and school friend, Irwin Lefcourt that “nobody could go into a surer thing… If you don’t sell it, we can always use it!” Using Max Doerner’s “recipes”, the two began making hand-ground oil paints under the name of Lefcourt, which to them sounded very French (and respectable I suppose!)  They then combined their names and created Bocour, Inc. a name Leonard would legally change to in 1951. From the onset it was about making paint for friends, for artists they knew. The shop was a meeting place for artists and its small premises often held card games, mounds of pastrami sandwiches and life drawing. “Making something for friends, you want to do it the right way” Mark Golden emphasizes because “feedback… you will get!” He still remembers obviously an artist friend telling him: “Mark, your paint stinks!” That was in the early days of the Golden company and yes rotten acrylics smell like rotten eggs, which forced Sam Golden to rethink his formula and add enough preservatives so that the paint would be immune to a bacteria attack… bacteria thrive in water you see.

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A life drawing session at Bocour

 

But I’m jumping the gun a bit… Bocour survived the war, the leaner years with virtually no materials and no one playing with them and -now you know you are never allowed to laugh at them again- thanks to the new “Paint-by-Number” craze that hit the country early in the 50’s! By then Leonard’s cousin, Sam Golden, was fully on board as a paint maker and he devised this oil paint based on castor oil that would stay wet in very small plastic pots. And this minor achievement (produced by the tens of thousands of little pots per day) finally allowed Leonard and Sam to buy real mixing and milling equipment for the factory. It also came after nearly ten years of experiments and practice in paint making as Bocour had added by then additional ranges of colors including watercolours, casein and eventually, the world’s first artist acrylic paint, Magna® in 1947. Slowly but surely, they began to sell to more retail stores and not just directly to artists. DSC00784

Sam Golden, the founder of Golden Artist Colors, would for the rest of his partnership with Leonard be the inside man, the developer of paints and Leonard, the raconteur and consummate sales man, the voice of Bocour. In 1960, Sam developed a waterborne acrylic paint they named “Aquatec”. Permanent Pigments had made their first water-based acrylic in 1954 so they were not the first on the market…. however there can’t have been too many recipes available because their first batch hardened up within 3 months and they had to buy it all back! A year later, the product was more stable… trial and error, trial and error…

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After thirty five years as a paint maker, Sam retired from his partnership in 1972 to a gentleman’s farmer life with his wife Adele in up state New York… I don’t know what the other siblings though of the idea but it’s obvious that Mark had already found out that weekends up in New Berlin could be slightly on the boring side… and soon enough Sam found that out too. So at the grand age of 67, encouraged by his wife who decided that sinking all their savings, their Florida house, their treasured paintings in the adventure was a better idea than seeing her beloved go unhappy, Sam was back at the mill… Golden Artist colors was born and Mark, one of their sons, traded his job managing a restaurant, for pedaling paints to their New York artist friends. His slogan was: “If you like the paint, give me the name of your artistic buddies. If you don’t, tell me why and I’ll bring you something else to try next week.” Sam and Adele were beaming with delight and Mark was freaking out in proportion to the bills mounting and profitless years passing.

Sam was not a trained chemist, but a perpetual tinkerer and, as always, encouraged and followed the leads given by all that feedback. However, the time came to employ their first chemist (“acrylics need a lab” you see) and gradually, with the input of Jim (who nearly turned around when he came for the interview and discovered it was going to happen in a…. cow barn! Good thing he didn’t!!), the quality of the paint increased, the ranges of mediums too. Adele passed away in 1988, but saw the fledgling company to its early years of profitability from which it has never looked back.  Sam continued to work at the company until he was 80, then turned around his career to become… a painter! And that’s what he did every single day until his death two years later…

Soon after, in 1997, the Golden Family created The Sam and Adele Golden Foundation for the Arts. To celebrate the legacy of that passionate couple and as a way to repay the many artists and friends that supported them and their young company. The foundation runs the residency program and the gallery on the Golden premises.

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Barbara Golden in front of some “help yourself goodies” at the residency

The delightful Barbara Golden, wife of Mark, who has also furnished the “barn” as everyone affectionately calls it with her own antique pieces (and I’m sure is the one behind the flowers in the vases) manages with kindness, elegance and dedication the residency program which serves mainly that same ongoing purpose…. creating in depth dialogues with artists with interesting issues. The in-house gallery in a way does the same thing but at another level. Promoting and thanking artists for sharing while giving all the Golden crew a renewed and true excitement in their products, an experience you only get when you see how someone has eventually used all those gallons of paint you make! 2016 will see 5 years of the residency (6 x 3 artists each year) and their 4th annual Made In Paint exhibition featuring artworks from all the artists who were selected to attend the Program in 2015.

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Mark Golden in front of the largest triple mill I have ever seen!

Just for fun I will share what the artists were working on the day I visited… Marie-Dolma Chope was wanting to switch to acrylics and wanted support in doing that… easy.

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Lori Larusso (here with Barbara) wanted to achieve artworks part mega glossy, part ultra mat, hum more complex especially that her works were on shaped panels.

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Eugenia Pardue was simply painting wedding cakes as far as I could tell… with the most extravagantly thick paint i have ever seen and somehow her process was truly yummy!

 

I don’t really know who joined when in the last 30 years since its inception but they are now a splendid team of 166 and among the most dedicated people I have met in the paint making world. They delight in their job as much as you in your job as an artist. They do the right thing by the environment too: filtering all their water five times, recycling it over and over to clean the machines… even the waste water produced by the three residents is pumped back to the plant to undergo the same process.  And you’ve got to love that!

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The barn is like a mini Beaubourg inside, pipes and wires are visible everywhere… a great look! I believe those control the flow back of waste water to the plant.

So, you want to go there? Right? And perhaps you might… apply and try your luck.

However most of you will probably never make it to New Berlin and the impressive Golden plant cum residency cum gallery BUT there is still the incredibly informative newsletter Just Paint they publish (you can subscribe and receive it online) which will give you answers to questions you never even knew you had (really interesting though). And, if you are more into seeing the products perform, there are videos galore available which you can access via the Golden website or on YouTube and, if still in doubt, there is always the phone or the email to get practical answers to your more personal concerns… you don’t have to be a conservator at the MET or an art restorer or even a zoo keeper who wants to devise a palette of pinks for his painting elephant (these guys do call too) just a normal artist with a simple question will be just fine. Your request will be dealt with by any of the 6 + persons who have been trained for over a year before they were even allowed to answer the phone! Or even, if it’s a real hard one I presume, by Sarah Sands head of the material specialists team (and author extraordinaire of some of articles in the Golden newsletter Just paint). All these highly trained persons answer over the phone thousands of  questions a year (+ around 14000 emails!) about how to use the products, explain what the many products do and also advise artists unsure of the process they’re using for whatever their project is and… THEY ARE ALL ARTISTS!

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Some draw downs bars in the plant

(Even if you are using another brand or mixing some with a Golden product, these amazing guys are there for you… They are not there to make a sale, simply to improve your experience, try to solve your problems… and gain some knowledge themselves too along the way. They won’t blink if you add that you were trying to varnish that painting in the tropics on a 100% humidity day or in the North Pole on a freezing one. Trial and error is accepted, S**T happens and they are certainly not there to blame your practice or make excuses for their product but to begin one more conversation, find out a way to make acrylics and your crazy idea work for you! Sarah’s one prerequisite when she made the move to New Berlin was… “I’ll do this job IF I get the assurance I will never have to lie. And she did and she didn’t! And we’re all the richer for it… )

Have I forgotten anything? Yes! Golden, under the helm of artist Patti Brady runs a Certified Instructors program for a few (happy few) practicing artists who become Golden Educators. These complete a four day intensive training focused on acrylic techniques and offer workshops in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Barbados, USA, Northern and Southern Europe… go to the website for more info. And for artists really dedicated there is also a Golden Certified Working Artists training. At the end of a six month intensive on all technical aspects of acrylic and archival painting practices, these artists are contracted to conduct lectures on Golden’s Acrylic products.

All in all, in one way or another, you should get the info you are after…

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An ‘artist impression’ of the ever colourful Patti Brady

Have I forgotten something else? Well most probably, they have branched out in so many ways but time has come to end my raving with what Mark says to every new employee, there are two bottom lines: how much money you’ve made, how many thank yous you’ve received that year… at Golden we are very clear which one we care most about… and that makes all the difference!

PS: In a few weeks I will publish Part 2 of my visit to Golden and we will dive with Jim, Ulysses and Sarah into the products they make: acrylics of course but also the most recent additions of Willamsburg oils and Qor their… acrylic watercolour! For now I simply wanted to honor the company for what it is, i.e. probably the most ethical, supportive company of artist materials with an integrity unmatched anyway in the world (and nobody’s paid me to write this, I paid my B&B, air fare, rental car to get there but left feeling totally honored for the time all these highly competent human beings gave me -a simple, happy blogger and store owner trying to inform herself and pass it on!) AND because in this world of profit it’s a Rare and Wonderful thing they are doing. Truly.

In the mood to read some more about Golden and their products, go to my post in bed with 166 Golden owners

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in bed with… the Coates dynasty!

When you take a left turn at the Bird-in-Hand Inn, the heart and centre of the small village of Stoke-St-Gregory, you’re nearly there. Just a few more kilometers of tall hedges which segment the view into small mosaic bits of landscape and presumably house a million nests. Just a few more country lanes with delightful cottages and you enter the Coate domain in the heart of the Somerset moors, one of the few remaining wetlands in Britain. Not raining today thank God, but you get the impression it must do that a fair bit around here. Which is good, because willows love water. And with willow, men have made so many things.

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In this part of the world, willow has been produced commercially since the 1800’s and by this particular family, the Coate, since 1819. A typical cottage industry where women and even children endlessly stripped the three coloured willow produced here: long pliable reeds one to three years old (don’t expect trees, they are actually only shoots coming straight from the ground). These could be woven into baskets, lounge chairs, topiary ornaments and all sorts of things the Victorian era needed and was very fond of. Of course by the mid twentieth century most of these things were on their way out. Plastic and other fossil fuel-based products were signaling the end of an industry here as in so many others places.

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The story goes that, back in the 60s, Percy Coate was musing one night about this in front of his fireplace. Pushing back some stranded charred willow twig into his fire, the beautiful black mark it left gave him the idea to try and diversify into making drawing charcoal. Although it took some years to perfect the technique, a decade later Coate’s willow charcoal was on the market and an immediate success. It was soon recognized, and still is, as probably the best quality artist charcoal in the world.
So why did it take him so long to create a drawing tool that had already been available to cavemen?
Well, he had the soft wood needed aplenty but producing charcoal industrially is a bit different from sitting around a fire every night and collecting in the morning a few sticks and bits which have charred to perfection -not turned to ashes, yet not a twig or a branch anymore, but this new substance where the vegetal and mineral meet: a perfect charcoal stick.

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And so the recipe… to make a good willow charcoal
1) plant rows of willow rods from the previous year’s crop two feet apart and wait three years until they become productive. Meanwhile let insects, birds and flowers run wild (in fact a true Bach flower pharmacopoeia could be developed as a side line to your business!).

2) After that a willow stump will for the next thirty years need only one year to grow reeds ready to use. In the winter let the leaves fall and you won’t even need fertiliser! Come harvest time, in the early spring, cut the long reeds and assemble them in a bundle. Use one reed to tie them with a beautiful “rose knot”… The reeds are so flexible you only need to swirl one to get it into that shape (maybe twenty years of practice help too!)

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3) Stack until time to be calibrated by height (the pieces from the top of the rod become thin charcoal and the pieces at the bottom of the rod become the thick or tree size charcoal, with the pieces in the middle becoming medium charcoal) and go into the boiler.

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By the way, back then to make rough wares, you needed not bother with stripping the bark at all. Barked reeds made baskets good enough for fishermen, peasants, even for the British Navy. But soon it was found that if you boiled the reeds, they could then be easily stripped and a much more delicate and pliable willow would be available to make refined and stronger goods in a variety of colours: from off white to buff to dark brown. Because ten hours of softening in boilers (from decommissioned steam ships still in use to this day) releases all the tannin from the bark, the tenth batch is pretty dark indeed. If you want a pure white, let the reeds stand in a water pit all winter and in spring cut the roots and leaves and strip easily the very soft willow to make delicate baby cots and the like.

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4) I realise these colour nuances are bit lost to the artist who only wants the charred variety! But of course, once boiled and whatever the colour, his reeds also need to be stripped. In the 60’s and before health and safety regulations came on board, this was done in the second generation of stripping machines and not anymore by children… you might be please to hear. Twisted and twirled by a hundred steel spring loaded little heads, the bark would relent. These days, this is achieved by a much more efficient and less dangerous machine, one of its kind in the world. It still looks pretty basic to me but it does the job apparently. (By the way, this is the only place in the western world I have seen people still sitting on the floor to do a job! The deft basket weavers here have nothing to tell them apart from their counterparts in North Africa or even the women circles of Australia.)

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5) The reeds, cut into 6 inch rods, are then sorted again by diameter and placed into “cooking tins”. These will be filled with sand and vibrated to make them completely air tight so they do not catch fire during the ten hour burning process at 500 degrees Celsius.

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Once cooled, the sticks will go to the nearby cottages to be sorted once more and wrapped in delicate grey tissue paper in the appropriate boxes: thin, medium, tree size… while the discarded ones will be turned later into powered charcoal. Shipped then, to the four corners of the planet, under many brand names (Faber, Micador, etc including Coate’s of course) these artist willow charcoal sticks are at last ready to answer all your creative needs and urges.

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If you ever make it to Stoke-St-Gregory and their charming shop you will  immediately notice that baskets take up most of the space, despite two thirds of their business being the art charcoal these days. But I will urge you to forget about willow altogether at some stage and make it to their tea shop… the scones are to die for!
Of course I wish you nothing of the sort but when indeed it does happen, you can now choose a very elegant and “artistic” way to go… in a Coate’s willow coffin!

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That’s it from me this month but Yippee! I’ve just finished my pages about the whole Carbon family of drawing materials, or you might only be interested in the charcoal drawing materials? You know what to do… click on the links… enjoy!

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