Leaving the Chroma factory after been given a visit of the whole place, I muse that I’ve only got half of a story. Yes, I’ve collected evidence: the colour spills, the empty tubes, the rolls of labels, the large vats with paint decanting while others are being stirred with the biggest ‘spoon’ before their contents are poured into the tube/packaging line. I’ve seen the run down cottage and the first rusty shed where it seems it all started – a true Aussie romantic icon. But that’s not even the whole truth.
A street in Sydney’s busy Cross district turning red, blue or green with the residue paint from the bottom of much less sophisticated machines and much much smaller mixing bowls could be another beginning… and the beginning of the end of the adventure all together… when some office of beautification of Sydney, or environmental agency must have noticed and decided home-made production of acrylic paint in the middle of the city was not a great idea. It could have stopped there, in 1965, if Jim Cobb, the High School Arts teacher behind the colourful mess didn’t have in him some determination –not just to produce acrylics here, down under, when no one was yet doing that– but a vision that somehow he could contribute something original to the recipe.
Jim is no chemist yet the reason I have wanted to do this interview, his reputation as a sort of wunderkind of the paint world has made me curious. The formulation of the original “Interactive” acrylic that can be reopened and re-activated, even after months, and “Archival” oil which dries faster than any other oil paint are the inventions of this Gyro Gearloose, as well as many other original mediums. (Including his Incredible Brush cleaner which, it must be said, is as incredible as the bottle proudly suggests!) But Australia being the size it is, Sydney is actually quite far from my home turf and, today when I get a chance to call in, Jim’s in America supervising Chroma’s second plant where they make the paint for Europe and the entire American continent. The Australian one stands on a bit of bush on the outskirts of Sydney, and supplies the rest of the world. I’ve decided to come and visit the factory anyway.
I love Australia! Everything here is a bit haphazard, managing to be both modern and sort of vintage. At Chroma, the ‘lab’ is a large shelf supervised by a rainbow painted unicorn. One or more machine seems to have issues with the world this morning, so production lines are a bit on the slow side but colourful splashes everywhere makes the whole place look a bit funky and fun… some sort of unedible Charlie’s chocolate factory. Outside, an employee is enjoying her cigee under a lean-to, the sun is shining and cries from our wonderful birds in the National Park behind the plot add an interesting melody to my conversation with John Dwyer, the commercial manager. There’s a swing in the tree, forklifts are beeping. Crazy, bit messy Life, Art, love it!
(I can only imagine too that in the US the wonderfully rusted shed where Jim formulated his first paints would have been turned into a museum and in France bulldozed to make space for something more elegant but here it sits in the morning breezes, paint peeling off its doors, its entrails full of old paintings, broken furniture that might well be useful someday, bits and bobs.)
Weeks later I will catch up with Jim on the phone for what I had hoped to be a ‘serious’ interview. I was ready to grill him on the “modified polymers” he uses in his Archival oils and which makes them fast drying and never cracking…. was he really sure this would work over the centuries as his website bragged? How could he be? I was also curious about the unlocking formula which can reopen his Interactive acrylics…. Would doing so not compromise the paint film? And how on earth could he have a professional paint-making plant without a triple mill roll? (Yep paint is simply mixed in the largest Magimix bowls you’ve ever seen, left to decant here and there inside and outside the factory and… that’s pretty much it until later in the tube they go!)
For all my efforts and questions, the interview turns out more philosophical than technical, but here are a few Jim nuggets for you to enjoy. Me: You were not a chemist but an art school teacher, how did you invent all these formulas and mediums? Jim: Well you know being an artist is rather difficult and a good one even more. The important thing is your mind set though. Mine was not conventional. All other paint makers are obsessed with tradition. I understood most artists are not that interested. What they want is to use oils, without the hassle of its many rules, and they want their oils to dry faster or, when they work in acrylics, they want them to dry slower! Have you heard of my new Thick Medium coming out? Me: No. Jim: Ah well it will do this and that and be quite interesting. I’ve also invented a Satin Gel Medium, coming out soon, quite different in its feel from the gloss one. Do you teach artists in your demos the importance of paint rags? Me: Uhhhh. Jim: And of course where you live is subtropical, so you must tell them not to use additives on rainy days, nor abuse the unlocking formula as the humidity in the air is probably enough. Actually, if you’re working on a big painting you should tell them not to use the little sprays mister we sell. Tell them to go and get two big ones at Bunnings (an Australian hardware chain) and fill one with water and one with the formula and they’ll soon get when to use one of the other depending on their need.
Oh well… so much for useful information from me today. Am I horrified? skeptical? Well, yes just that little bit. Yes, I’m an art’s material snob! Then I relent. The formulations are good and doing their job, customers –from kids to crafts people to artists– are happy with the paint so what if excellence and longevity is not really on the menu? Good enough for each category is what is aimed for here and… why not? If I sound derogative, I don’t mean to. The whole affair is simply ‘casual.’ Something I’ve come to appreciate about both the people and the lifestyle here.
On my second visit to Australia, I was meeting a friend on Lindeman island on the Great Barrier Reef. She had warned me I was transiting via a ‘casual’ airport. What on earth could that be? Well, it’s one in which you venture with your Paris clothes and a heavy suitcase on the tarmac looking for Peter. Then, when you have found him, it turns out Peter is both gorgeous and your pilot and his first question to you is: Would you mind if we stopped on another island first so he could deliver his girlfriend her present (it’s her birthday you see.) Two take offs and landings in paradise… Why would I object? Peter turned out to be an ace pilot as well as great fun (and he managed somehow to fit my suitcase at the back of our micro plane.) We got to my island an hour late but hey, I was on holiday, the sunset was even more gorgeous when we landed and he had made someone’s day! It feels a bit the same here. We’re making paint but hey… sure we do it OK, but no reason to take ourselves too serious either.
PS: Chroma is the name of the brand but you might well know its lines better than the actual name. The first ones invented by Jim were affordable quality school paint and these answer to Chroma names: Chromacryl, Chroma 2, Chroma Kidz, etc. Then came “Jo Sonja”, Jim’s craft acrylic paint line while later Atelier (Interactive and Free Flow) became the professional ones, while, in oil, the line goes by the name of Archival.