in bed with… Master Paint-maker David Coles

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Early in the 90’s, David Coles brought from England to Australia his passion for pigments, his expertise in art supplies and his youthful determination. What he could not know at the time though is that this red continent would offer him something most unexpected and surprising: a desire for new colours…

David’s first factory’s location –on Langridge Street– gave the company its name and, despite rather bohemian beginnings, hard work and excellence always flourished there. Manufacturing professional quality oil mediums, varnishes and grounds to supply artists with artist grade dry ground pigments and other quality raw materials kept David happy and busy for nearly two decades. But being the invisible medium of the oil paint world was not his long term dream. How indeed can one resist colour! Seven years in the making, Langridge’s Handmade Oil Colours finally came on the market in 2011 urged on by artists who told David they wanted a paint of the same quality as his mediums.

This June 2017, David is celebrating the first quarter of a century of his ‘young’ brand –young in the colour world that is!– with a delightful exhibition about colours and pigments ‘Chromatopia’, opening at Tacit Contemporary Art space in Melbourne on 31st May. Meet the man behind these elegant labels.

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Mona Lisa: I like your new official title…

David Coles: Yes, apart from being founder of Langridge Artist Colours, I’m actually a Master Paint-maker. That name reflects the dedication involved with the whole formulation of the actual products from absolute scratch and that those paints under those formulations are following my philosophy of what the paint should be… which is not only, obviously, the highest pigment load possible so that the artists can get as much colour out of that paint as possible, but also that it has a certain feel. That the paint is going to be reflective and honest about the way the pigment actually is and creates certain qualities. You have some colours that are naturally soft and quite fluid. Some which are quite buttery. Some are quite stiff, some clotted. It’s the pigments’ action upon the vehicle used creating that. Now you don’t see that with most of the other paints out there because they use some additives, mostly stabilizers, in quite large quantities which, in essence, homogenizes and evens out all those types of natural qualities of each colour. I think that a pretty important part of an artist’s craft is understanding how paints operate slightly differently from colour to colour because they reflect what the pigment is actually all about.

Mona: And how does one become an Master Paint-maker? It’s a complex craft and it’s not as if there was school out there?

David: There’s nowhere you can go and learn it. I learnt a lot of my craft when I went to work for Roberson & Co. back in London in the 80’s. But in the end, I really learnt it on the mill. When you’ve got wads of colour coming at you from the triple rolled mill, you start to learn. In this one you need to coax the dispersion, for example with modern colours where you have to tease the colour, the pigments need to be separated from each other much more gently. Whereas the older inorganic pigments, like the Cadmiums and the Cobalts, are much easier to disperse and something like Zinc White, which is a very soft pigment, needs hardly any work done to it to actually make it into a dispersed paint. And when we talk about dispersion, I’m talking about separation of the pigment particles evenly throughout the actual vehicle so that all the pigment particles are separated from each other and coated evenly in the minimum amount of oil possible to make it into a paste. Which is what we call paint!

Mona: What about the earth colours?

David: Oh, the earth colours! Yes, some of my children are very very obstinate. The Umbers are very naughty. They are very thirsty pigments so they need a lot of oil. Certainly our Siennas are naturally of quite a gritty consistency and that’s not because we’ve under-milled them but because that’s the nature of Sienna pigments. We don’t want to mask that because, most importantly when they are used in glazes, that’s when you can see a life come out of them. So the earth colours, because they’re naturals, yes they have their own real individual qualities.

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Mona: When you say “our pigments” you obviously do not go and collect them yourself in the desert so…

David: So I go around the world and, when I say that, I mean I now have long term relationships with the major pigment manufacturers around the world: the Germans, the British, the Americans, the Taiwanese, the Japanese, and we select pigments that are built to the specifications we need as artists. The most important factor is that they are not reactive with other painting elements, like solvents, that there is no solvability etc. and that they are highly lightfast. Also that, when they are dispersed, they have a working quality that makes a paint artists can work with. There are now a lot of pigments available that are surface coated. For example, these days most Titanium White pigments have some kind of surface treatment which allows it to be dispersed in different types of vehicles for different applications and obviously art materials is a tiny industry and certainly not the driving force for pigment manufacturers.

Mona: Never was!

David: Never was and never will be. But even less so, in a way, in the modern age where you have surface treatment of pigments so that they are more easily dispersed into plastics or into different solvent bases like lacquers, even cosmetics to prevent any issues about contamination of the skin etc. We are of course offered a vast variety of them and so we have to be ultra careful about what we choose. It would be very easy for someone to be waylaid and pick the wrong pigment. You have to know a fair amount about chemistry. Not that I’m trained as a chemist, I trained as an artist. So my starting point is always also that one. Are these colours artists will want to use? If they have never had the opportunity to use these before, what do they bring to their palettes? I’m very interested in the modern colours, the Quinacridones, the Pyrolles etc. because they offer the artist extraordinary chromatic intensity and durability and cleanness in their mixing qualities for secondaries and tertiaries.

Mona: Do you think one day the Cadmiums and Cobalts will have no place on an artist’s palette?

David: The Cadmiums have a beautiful quality in themselves and I don’t mean in any way that the modern, what I call the organic pigments, are superior per se over the inorganic pigments. I’m personally interested in these organic colours, because they are as saturated as possible, more than the older pigments. But I certainly understand why artists love the older ones for the very reason that they are subtle, lower chroma, etc.

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Mona: You began by formulating mediums, didn’t you, which is a rather unusual way to go about things. I’m guessing that in every other paint company in the world it happened the other way round, paint first, mediums second… so why did you chose this, shall I say, rather down-under approach?

David: I set up Langridge with pigments and oil mediums because, to be honest with you, that’s what I could afford to do. It took me seven years to be able to slowly find and buy all the machinery needed to start making paint. The first mill I bought was a small mill. We still use it in the factory to make very small batches and often now trial batches. But it took me many years to be able to afford to get to that stage. So I started making oil paint mediums, which I formulated myself from scratch, again knowing what I wanted to get out of a medium for myself and what I knew was important for artists.

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Mona: Did you do it because you thought there was nothing on the Australian market up to your requirements? Or did you already have a bigger vision?

David: It came about by accident when I first visited Australia on a holiday. I worked for an art retailer and became aware of what was available to Australian artists. Obviously there were a couple of Australian manufacturer’s brands here. I knew, having worked for Roberson & Co. and in their very venerable art materials store in London called Cornelissen & Son, a lot about art materials and the benefits / negatives of each raw material that goes into a manufacturer’s formulations and products. One of the biggest issues for me is linseed oil. It’s a magnificent binding oil for paint, obviously if it’s kept to an absolute minimum because used excessively, particularly in mediums, it promotes yellowing. The mediums that I could see here were basically, unfortunately, detrimental to the artists’ practice. So that’s why all of the Langridge’s fluid mediums are based on stand oil, polymerized linseed oil because it’s a non-yellowing oil. So I very quickly realised there was a gap in the market for a world-class medium for artists. Before I came back out here, I knew what I was going to do: set up an artists’ products manufacturing company in Australia. Even then, always, I knew I wanted to make paint. Because, in the end, that’s what artists really use.

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Mona: Well, no, they use all of it… but yes paint is more sexy!

David: Yes certainly more sexy. Although pigment is pure colour. Some disappear and we introduce more colours but, as a general rule, we stock and sell about a hundred pigments here because some artists want to make their own paint and because they are so delicious in their nature as pure colour. In the paint something has already been denatured. It’s colour with a binder and depending on the binder, it can alter the optical vibrancy of the paint. Ultramarine is a classic. You can see the pigment vibrate but when mixed with oil it becomes very dark. You have to add white to it to start to see that light come back into it. I’ve always been in love with pigments anyway. I remember when I was, um, probably eleven and my mother had opened up an art shop in Henley where I grew up, and one Christmas she gave me a set of pigments, just little 30ml pigment jars and it was for nothing else except to be able to look at them. Like jewels.

Mona: An old passion then… so did you really go to art school to become an artist?

David: Absolutely. I thought I was going to be an artist, definitely. I don’t think I had any doubts about that, actually I still am an artist. I have a studio, I still go in the studio. Not as much as… certainly not as much as I used to, but I still consider myself an artist and that informs very much what and how I make the things I do and also because my conversations with fellow artists doesn’t stop at selling them or supplying them with materials it’s a constant ongoing conversation with them that I have. All my friends are artists. I go to their studios, gallery openings, or over dinner at home we start talking about their painting. What problems they have, what successes and, sure, they’ll ask me questions and I’m very open to helping artists in that way because it feels, naturally, the right thing to do.

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Mona: You’re still learning things?

David: Haha, always!

Mona: Is there really a lot more to learn?

David: There is. One because I’m curious, so I’m constantly learning. I can sometimes also be a collector of obscure information which has no direct bearing on my business! In particular, an area I have always been interested in, is the history of art materials which means that a few times, every year, I’ll make something using a 14th or 15th century recipe… at the moment I’m making a traditional walnut ink made from their husks. They’ve been fermenting in the pot for about two years now and the fermentation breaks down the sugars which creates a darker colour. I’ve also made a whole set of traditional lake colours from dyes. Things like Brazil wood and turning it into pigment and in the same vein I want to make some genuine madder but these are not commercial exercises this is purely out of curiosity and to understand I suppose how pigments used to be made and probably from that realize over again how incredibly lucky we are now. The pigments we have now are so super reliant and rich. Can you imagine Impressionist artists having access to the palette we have now? One of the reason their paintings were so shocking is that their palette were so vibrant because they had access to this range of Cadmiums and Cobalts, our traditional colours were brand new to them, they had only been released commercially twenty years earlier and suddenly you had stable, bright, opaque, affordable colours that weren’t available before. Particularly the reds.

Mona: Oranges too!

David: Yes oranges, oh my God keep going, Viridian for the greens, Cobalt to the blues! I’ve always been a big believer in this idea of science and art, technology and art actually, working hand in hand. I mean the history of technology is always written out of the history of art in regards to why artists started to paint in a particular way. Often it has to do with a technological breakthrough not an aesthetic or cultural breakthrough. And it’s always written out because, maybe to a certain extent, it doesn’t fit very easily into a narrative that is anti the craft of painting and because artists spent hundreds of years, especially through the Renaissance, trying to distance themselves from being seen as craftsmen – which is how they where considered during the medieval times. They wanted to be seen as artists, as say poets were seen. For that, they had to remove themselves in a sense from any idea of the craft and that made its way through into the modern vision.

Mona: When you started, there were already quite a few paint makers and actually very good paint makers out there but what did you think you could bring that would be different or special… a part from having your name (which isn’t even your name!) on the tube?

David: I really didn’t want my name on the tube because I still had visions I would be a famous artist, exhibiting, so of course I needed my name separate! As for the question, the paint makers I do admire… there are a handful of them around the world –and I mean that literally– but none of them are in Australia. And in truth I wanted to have a go at making a paint even better than theirs.

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Mona: A tad pretentious perhaps?!

David: When I went to art school, I was part of a very prodigious year. We were told that as well. There were other painters who were far stronger than I but, as a group, we were very young Turks and one of the great things of growing up in England with the permanent art collections like the National Gallery in London, or Queen’s collection is that you can go and see these artists. And so we were really seriously saying to ourselves: That’s good, but we can do better! We were in competition with the old masters and we saw nothing wrong with that, in fact we were encouraged to do that. That same philosophy runs through me now and I have the greatest admiration for some of these companies which sometimes have been around for a hundred years or more. I go, they’re great but I can do better than that! Whether I can, is for me to prove to myself. The paint quality I’m aiming for has more to do with myself, proving this to myself more than to anyone else. It is not a personal conceit but it is something that is of importance to me to make the paint this well. And then I hope that other artists will enjoy the paint as well.

Mona: The world is going to get the paint it didn’t know it was waiting for!!

David: Well you asked me the question about the world before… do I think there’s room in the world for another paint? There are already quite a lot of brands out there. Where I think Langridge can make a difference is because of my interest in these modern highly chromatically intense colours. Creating a palette that reflects the Australian light in a way that light floods and energises the colours that it strikes and which comes from the dryness of the continent. There’s very little moisture, there’s very pure light and the scale of the skies are enormous. It doesn’t really afford the opportunity for much shadow. And when you do get shadows, the shadows vibrate as well. They become violet and vibrate that way.

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Mona: How many colours did you start with?

David: First 32, and then we added 8 extra about a year and a half later. That was about 3 years ago and last year we have just brought out 16 new colours. We’re aiming to end up with 80 colours. That would be the full extent.

Mona: Mono-pigments?

David: Absolutely, concentration on mono-pigments, not blends. And that becomes problematic actually because you start to fill colour spaces –in other words, certain shades and certain tones of colours– very rapidly. I suppose for example that Zinc Blue attempts to fill the colour space that used to be filled by the old Manganese Blue which is a pigment that has not been in production for almost twenty years. And that particular blue is very relevant to the Australian sky and Australian water, especially ocean water has that kind of brightness and again that lack of moisture.

Mona: Water?

David: Alright, let’s say the blueness of the sky as it strikes a liquid material!! It’s the same with our Cold Brown Oxide. It’s a blend that replicates a colour very useful for artists, an old colour that was Cassel Earth or Van Dyke Brown. Those pigments unfortunately have strong problems with regards to drying rates, they’re very erratic. So, once again, I wanted to create another blend for this colour so useful to artists in particular for creating receding shadows, etc. without those drying problems. Of course as we go to the 80 colours, yes there is going to be more blends. And then I’ve got to be extremely careful about why I’m making them. That’s why I’m interested in what we call our brilliant range. We already had Brilliant Pink, which is almost like a hot bubble gum pink and have proceeded with a Brilliant Magenta and a Brilliant Green and we’ll continue to expand that range. The philosophy of that range is to offer the kind of vibrancy of a fluorescent pigment, but highly lightfast. So, again, these create non-real or unrealistic colours but they are there because I know artists find them very useful.

Mona: So, some of the more traditional colours that you are not producing might actually never come to be? I suppose some companies are doing them already and doing them well…

David: Absolutely, the Northern Hemisphere companies, especially the European ones such as Winsor and Newton, Rembrandt, Blockx, their palettes reflect their light. If you wanted to compare them, you would see we have a very different way of going about constructing our set of colours. You can see the colour spaces they are hitting, it reflects a much lower light, a much greyer light.  And they are beautiful. It’s not that our colours are better than theirs, they are different and I’m offering a different selection which I think reflects here. And yes the Europeans do do their Earth colours really well and I don’t want to replicate that. Why would I?

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Mona: And so there’s a sense of destiny in your arrival in Australia, coming here to create a new palette for a very old and new continent.

David: Well to be honest with you, the whole me being in Australia and everything leading to me coming back to set up Langridge did have a sense of destiny unfolding: a whole set of coincidences, accidental meetings, that led to me very easily settling here. And it’s interesting about you mentioning it being an old continent because Australia is of course the oldest continent with the oldest continuous civilisation in the world…

Mona: Of artists!

David: As well! As well! And it’s something that I’ve thought long and hard about in regards to Langridge: what is our relationship with that part of Australian culture? And it’s an almost impossible bridge for me to cross. I feel I would actually be taking advantage of their culture by trying to adopt Aboriginal culture. I see too much of that for personal, commercial gain and I don’t want to do that because, as I said, things like my colour range I’m working with is not a traditional aboriginal palette. Now we have a lot of aboriginal artists who buy our pigments and some of the very bright colours. At this point in time though, most of the indigenous artists I’m connected with work in acrylic paint not in oil. So there isn’t immediately some kind of connection to the actual materials. For the pigments we have a constant interaction and dialogue with communities West, up North and in the Centre. Our oil paint is not something they are particularly interested in at this moment. Acrylic is probably much more sympathetic to their painting style: waterborne, fast drying.

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Mona: Obviously, you see a future for oil paint, a forever and ever?

David: Yes, oil paint for the future absolutely. Look, every year I try and make something different. I’ve made oil pastels, oils sticks, compressed chalks, charcoals, gouache, drawing inks, even shellac based ones… I do it more out of a personal interest, a curiosity. I would love to make commercially soft pastels but, again, there is so much to be done with oil paints I’m not quite sure I’ll ever find the time. Not just the oil colours themselves, I’m constantly inventing and formulating new mediums and new products when I see a gap in the market. A possible new tool for painters. I have just developed a more fluid medium, which has a more slippery quality than some of our existing ones, and a high impasto medium. We’ve been experimenting with some glass bead and we’ve just released a new encaustic wax… a modern formulation of a very traditional recipe. Encaustic, at this moment in time, is back in favour. We have a lot of artists interested in working as encaustic artists. All the materials available had to be brought in from overseas but I knew we could produce here a product as good, if not better, than those imported products. And again because I worked with encaustic 20 years ago, and on and off since that time, I do understand the working qualities and what this product needs to be, as a tool for artists. So far the feedback from encaustic artists with lots of experience themselves has been extremely positive. We do believe we’ve created something quite unique. Something we could even launch onto a world market and it fits, of course, beautifully into our pigment colours so in a sense it closes the loop all the way back to the very beginnings of Langridge. 1992 to now. A completion of the first circle really.

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‘Chromatopia’ exhibition opens in Melbourne on 31st May (until 18th June)

Tacit Contemporary Art Gallery – 312 Johnston St, Abbotsford VIC 3067 – Australia

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Want to read more about David? I did an “in bed with…” post some years ago about him and his firm, go there to read it David Coles (and Louise!) at Langridge Artists Colours (Melbourne, Australia)

3 Comments Add yours

    1. Yes it is Carolyn… perhaps the most delicious paint there ever was… and ever will be!

  1. Carolyn says:

    Thanks Sabine. It all sounds so yummy and delicious. Almost edible. I don’t work with oil paint but I love knowing more about it

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