Sorry but when I get a chance in a million to interview someone called Art, I then find it impossible to resist this title! (Although, as his family name is Guerra, it did cross my mind to go “Make Art, not War” but then again… this is supposed to be a serious blog so… maybe not!)
Guerra Paint and Pigment Corp. must be the only artists’ paint company in the world that does not make paint. Not at all. No a tube, not a tub in sight.
What they do have on the shelves though are pigments: dry, ground or in super concentrated dispersions. Lots and lots of pigments. Precisely 230 of them. More yellows that you knew existed, it seems virtually indecent to have such a choice. Same again with the oranges, the reds… Do I need twenty Quinacridones in my life? Yes, they are my family of choice for the moment, but that many members, really?
Of course, to people whose thing in life is to wake up in the morning and go play with colours all day, I imagine there can never be enough variations and I doubt a living artist could resist salivating in front of the incredible chart of all the Guerra pigments that covers an entire wall in their delicious New York store. Here, each pigment is shown mixed with a normal binder, then thickened, then with white, then with more white and finally mixed with pure liquid aluminum flake…. These are not for the fainthearted let me tell you right now! AND I saw immediately from the corner of my eye when I entered row upon row of shelves dedicated to bling and glitter… is this a serious shop? It turns out, that… yes.
It’s a fun place. It is more than fun actually, deeply exciting to make your own paint with such an array of starting points and combos further down the track. I’m not just talking colour here but modifying your viscosity with a squirt of this, the lightness of your paint with a squirt of that, its elasticity… or maybe adding fillers like “Hollow Ceramic Spheres”, “Garnet” or “Black Tire Rubber” which you can chose powdered or shredded depending perhaps on whether you are a true member of the Hell’s Angels or just a painter by night.
But then -before you begin to think this is a huge party in which only crazy mixed media artists have been invited and not a place for you- you might notice the opposite wall with shelves and shelves of rather dull white containers with very chemically obscure looking names like “Acrylic 50H”, “Urethane 32”, “Ammonia substitute” and the like on their labels…. Right, back to business. The very serious business of making professional quality paint.
As is so often the case, adversity was the mother of this company’s inception. Art Guerra, a young artist knowing next to nothing about paints at the time (as was prevalent in the 60’s when concept had virtually replaced technique in art schools and paint companies felt no obligation to let you know anything about what was in their tubes) became the recipient of a painting commission: a huge mural in New York city. What should have been fun turned into a bit of a nightmare, with his sign writer’s poor quality colours fading into insignificance as soon as they were put down. Experimentation began and… never stopped! Getting to know his pigments was step number one and playing with them in ready-made pigment dispersions went hand in hand with that. “The system I adopted included an exterior paint base and about 12 pigment concentrates. The reaction I would get at the mural site was phenomenal! Crowds of people gathered as I mixed the industrial strength pigment concentrates into the base, and soon I discovered a broader palette of textures and a growing range of pigment concentrates while working alone in my art studio. I began studying how to make pigment dispersions myself, with the sole intention of being able to disperse every pigment I came into contact with. Studying the characteristics of contemporary pigments, I became immersed in a world of incredible colors and textures that would greatly benefit any artist….”
Then came the day he felt ready to share with fellows what he had learned the hard way. Art Guerra founded his company in 1984, mainly to help artists become more acquainted with the raw materials of their trade. Names on tubes are fickle and often it is only by checking the true name of the pigment -aka its colour index number- that you can know for sure what’s in the tube. Understanding more about binders helps too as there are latexes of all kind out there: acrylics, vinyls, urethanes and they all perform quite differently with your pigment dispersions. And of course not all pigments are suitable for artists’ paint and some of those that are can be quite tricky to disperse in water (even with the help of a dispersing agent), a prerequisite to mixing them with whichever binder. Art relies on experience of course but also on the literature the industry gives him, on knowledge gained at trade shows or -as these days he has gained a true respectability- on dialogues directly with the engineers at Dow Chemicals, BASF etc. He is also uncompromising on sourcing his pigments from reliable sources: Europe and the US mainly. A few days prior to my visit a Chinese company had sent a sample to seduce them of Cerulean blue… Art takes one look at it and the verdict is instant: “This is just the most hideous colour!”
Of course this incredible curiosity has led him, and the two accomplices that joined Guerra paints later -Seren Morey (another artist now in charge of the shop) and her partner Jody Bretnall (a musician in charge of the workshop)- into all sorts of avenues, venues and trouble in order to secure some of the rarest and most interesting pigments suitable for artists. Because they don’t actually have to support a huge range of products made from these pigments, they can afford to extend their interest to rarities, deleted or virtually extinct pigments (yes, pigments do die… if they are too rare or if no one loves them enough to keep them in the race! When Guerra’s stock will be used up, well, they will truly be history. Is that even possible? Yes it seems so and some you know very well are close to extinction: Prussian and Manganese blue to name a famous couple… we’re talking the real stuff here of course, not the hues.)
I am not savvy enough to know which might be on the extinction list among those on the incredible chart on the wall here but among the ones I see and don’t recognize some sound really fun like the “Cobalt tutti frutti”, cute like the “Cobalt Raspberry”, dangerous like the “Caprice Cobalt Violet” or languid like the “Dalamar”, while others are more enigmatic like the “DNA Orange” or “Crap Green”, and some downright worrying like the “Chromophal Scarlet” or the “Azoic Plum Violet”. A whole other bunch seem straight out of Frankenstein’s lab and answer to the charming names of “Diarylide HR70”, “Irgazin 2GLT” and “Azo FGL”. Most –unless you really really know your pigments- are only very remotely evocative of the wondrous colours they label.
“Make sure you shake this one because for many years this pigment just wanted to go down. I think we’ve managed now to make it pretty stable but still make sure you shake it pretty well” is one of Art’s recommendations to a client. This casual remark shows how much all of this is still a work in progress, a perpetual learning curve. Not many of these pigments are well known in an artist context. The older lead based pigments are excluded on principle for safety reason (remember YOU are going to make the paint!) and the ones I seem to recognise mostly answer to a variation name. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll walk out of there knowing how to make a paint of the kind you are interested in. Even if it’s a bit time consuming for these guys to run a shop in which every new client has to be taught how to use their products, it’s not that complicated in fact -they do demos every week and mini ones if you just pop in. It might take a bit of trial and error to get the exact paint you dream of but then again it will be like no other on the market so probably worth your effort. Then, once you get the hang of mixing and pay attention to your dosage, you’ll be able to create that texture or that precise colour over and over. In truth, the really difficult part is mainly done by them before it arrives in the dispersion bottle, as you’ll see.
At that stage in the conversation however, I cannot but wonder about so so many colours… Is it worth it? ? Why would an artist want a pigment 6 times dearer than the dearest known ones? Do these colours really fill useful colour spaces for artists?
“Yes” is Art’s unequivocal answer. Give me an example I beg.
“Benzimidazo R5R” that’s a luscious deep deep blue, no competition around. “Perylene Green black”. It’s used for camouflage because infra red does not pick it up (neither do the eyes of your very rich patron but apparently painters just LOVE it!).
And then there was this gentleman who walked in earlier and just wanted a fluo bubble gum pink but didn’t want to use a fluo paint as these are not lightfast. Would adding a UV stabilizer change his colour? Yes, dramatically. A UV varnish? Yes again… so what? Art suggests he might add some “Transparent Titanium white” to his fluo so that the light would bounce off the white and this could act as a partial UV stabilizer. But the young man is adamant, lightfast it should be. In this case go for the “Pyrazo-Quinazo” with a bit of transparent “Tit white” to help the light bounce off. (While this exchange is going on, needless to say I have shrunk to the size of a pigment particle myself and in my jar on the shelf am musing how many years I might go undetected so I could learn all this staggering amount of information!)
But enough theory, apparently it’s hands-on time… To start with, Art confirms what I had been told at Golden: dispersing pigments in water is hard. I had already understood these little guys were temperamental but hydrophobic is a new name to the long list of their misbehaviors. In truth, you do not want to be making your acrylics from scratch… Dispersing some of these pigments in water, which is the first step, can take up to 10 takes on a triple roll mill at Golden’s warehouse while Art uses a bomb mill favoured by ceramicists. At a certain speed, the ball-bombs cascade on the side of the mixing bowl then hit the pigment and eventually disperse it. Sometimes it takes 8 hours of this treatment, sometimes up to 5 days if you are trying to achieve very very fine particles for a true transparency. Wetting agents help as they create little hooks all around the pigments which the binder can then attach itself to. While dispersing agents help but in a different way. They too are a sort of wetting agent but also act as a suspending agent, basically making the whole thing come together. Art makes his own but admits that the whole thing is difficult industrial chemistry: “we’ve really suffered on that one” seems to sum it up.
In fact, I wonder, why would you want to disperse the pigment first in water? Because you need that water in your paint anyway and because, apparently, if you add your binder first, it might just turn into cottage cheese of the worst variety. To disperse your pigments is sometimes easy. Some are even “thirsty” but, in the case of the hydrophobic ones, water just sits on the pigment. Literally. Take Saturn yellow. Add water. Admire bubble of water on pigment. Wait. Admire some more. Mix and enjoy the clotted goo. And you haven’t even added your binder…
Guerra Paints sells all kinds of binders but they don’t make any and Art admits some artists get theirs elsewhere for specific reasons. Golden’s 800 for example if they like to pour and want to make sure their paint isn’t going to crack. Give or take however, with what you find here you could probably make paint of the exact consistency, sheen, flexibility, colour and saturation you desire. At a whim, an infinity of artist quality paints you could find nowhere else on the planet! And cheaper. A lot. (Well sealed, your paint will also last for years.)
Maybe you think you have better things to do… painting for example. Hum, yes, and maybe you are right. And maybe again you would change your mind if you gave it a go. Because making paint is something artists have done for centuries, and because adding a squirt of pigment dispersion to the binder of your choice: hard, high gloss, super mat, strong and adhesive (bit expensive that one but you can stretch these, crumple you paper a thousand times and the paint won’t crack!), churning the paint (“Don’t let too much air in!” “Hold the brush this way!” “Faster!”), adding a bit more pigment till you get your exact colour (you don’t have to go full strength you see so that’s much more economical than adding white later), mixing in a bit of silver (optional of course but quite a funky metallic paint will result) is not only fun, it’s like pastry making. There is something totally magical about adding two or three inedible ingredients and turning them into a mouthwatering cake, right? Likewise… What more can I say? Perhaps… Bon appetit!
Guerra Paint and Pigment Corp. 510 East 13th Street
New York NY 10009
Mon to Sat 12-7pm (but if you want a demo, best to call first (212-5290628)