in bed with… natural pigments

I know, I know, there should be caps to Natural and Pigments. It just looked more yummy this way and in bed with… natural pigments, just the thought, hey? Bit messy perhaps but ever so colourful! (In the mood for real beds and natural pigments? check out my ochre blog page)

The droughty, scorching summer is mellowing as I reach in the North of California the sleepy and dusty little town of Willits. “Gateway to the Redwoods” and some of the tallest, oldest trees on the planet to the North, vines to the South and… weed (the most extensive pharmaceutical marijuana concessions here) to the West, Willits is the most improbable setting for Natural Pigments’ factory, the baby of American/Mexican George O’Hanlon and Russian wife, Tatiana Zaytseva. Their very knowledgeable and bilingual son, Anton, meets me here while his parents are touring… Australia! Really bad timing but then life is like that. I too fit this unexpected visit between long lost friends and some nature time to myself.

Once inside, it feels like most other paint making factories I have visited here and there in the world. On that table, vibrant pigments in tights bag are being weighed. In this corner, a stone mill, not unlike Blockx’s but smaller, churns a batch of paint. Through its massive rollers, the fine particles of pigment are being thoroughly coated with linseed oil. As the paint slowly extracts itself of the last rolls, large palette knives will catch it and toss it back on the first roll. Three times –or triple-milled as you often read– is the norm, more its oft needed. Little painting knives will then be used to make sure every precious blob of the batch is retrieved. White, empty, yet unlabelled tubes are seen everywhere as in most places paint is produced but today’s batch will sit six months before judged stabilised enough to be tubed. Because what is on the mill this morning is very very unique to this factory: Crystal White, one of nine lead whites in Rublev’s oil paint range which (even if they do produce a mixed Lead/Titanium white now) will not even go near Zinc white (more about that later!!) Your choice will be between Lead White produced in-house via the “stack process”, commercial Lead/Flake White (available in linseed and walnut oil), Ceruse, Mica Lead White, Venetian or Flemish White… if you don’t find the white of your dreams here, don’t bother looking elsewhere I’d say! And the way they are made, without even a hint of additive, stabiliser or drier, is also most unique to this range. Despite the activity, Time seems somewhat suspended here, employees whispering/speaking in Russian add a slightly disconcerting touch too. In fact, the whole place feels somewhat unworldly…

Five years have ticked on the clock (how is that even possible when I don’t feel a day older?) before I return to Willits. Twice in a lifetime might be even a bit much I wonder as I slowly drive down the main (and only) street on the lookout for my one exciting memory of the town… the surprisingly rich rubber stamp shop I so enjoyed the first time. Can’t find it tonight though –gone with the wind and our crazy world, is it? (Was somewhat improbable back then I must say.) This time, I have come not only to meet and interview George and Tania but for a six-day Best Painting Practices workshop. They run this once a year only, but shorter three-day versions of the same info-filled presentation they offer year-round all over the US and now… online too. Our group was lucky enough to do it in situ, and the ten of us were not only in their factory with free access to absolutely everything (this is the most gracious and generous workshop I possibly have ever gone to) but obviously too it was more fun feeling the buzz of the workshop, seeing the triple mill rolling, the tubes being filled, the labels being affixed to the tubes.

Teresa Oaxaca was one of the charming artists following the workshop and a living proof you can still be cute while wearing your safety mask when varnishing a painting!

George is no doubt one of the most knowledgeable persons in the field I have ever met and listening to him is like a dream come true: information I knew but knew not where it fitted find their pigeon hole, loose bits of info do too, minute but acutely nagging questions find a logical answer and whole new visions take shape… Wow, soooooo fun. Yet meeting the powerhouse behind Natural Pigments and Rublev paints, aka Tania, is the delicious cherry on this sweet cake! The days roll off with our program, which logically started with supports and will end with varnishes, covering… everything in between! It is both leisurely and intense as we are shown and given time to try out, hands-on, all the things talked about and demonstrated, which makes all the difference of course.

It takes all that week, and all the lectures given, for me to actually really comprehend what it is that they are doing here and the genuinely unique framework they have given themselves as a company.

Molybdate Orange on the triple mill

Despite their name, quite a few of their paints are made out of synthetic pigments (not natural ones I mean). But of course, how could we live, how could we paint without Vermillion, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine or Prussian blue (not to mention all the lead-based ones!) They have also added now quite a few more modern ones, some Chromes, Cadmiums, Mars and a delicious — and I would think youngest pigment in their range — Molybdate Orange, a synthetic inorganic pigment developed before WWII. But the natural pigments prevail and offer, I believe, the most extensive range of Earth pigments in any range. Meet the unusual Hrazdan Yellow, Tavush Green and Transparent Mummy from Armenia, Blue Ridge Yellow ochre from Virginia (USA), Violet Hematite, Nicosia Green, Cyprus Raw umber… the list goes on and… you could travel in your mind (which is the only place to go these days anyway!) just looking at your palette. If you were more historically minded than geographically so, you could also try some genuine Cinnabar Green, Minium, Lazurite, or Lead-Tin Yellow while you were on the job. But, and however lovely the array of options, George and Tatiana have not chosen these only for their pretty hues…

Some pigment shelves in their yummy stock…

Yet, to pursue now, (perhaps in line with their ‘Back to the Future’ approach… and George’s first enquiry: Could natural pigments possibly be the way forward?) I need to backtrack a bit… Maybe encouraged by his Mexican mother, George developed early a passion for representational Art. Yet Realism was hardly the taste of the times, so he chose Mexico to get an art education. When he came back to the US, things hadn’t changed much of course and, finding it hard to earn commissions or make a living from his art, he moved on to commercial graphic design and… that’s when destiny really took things in charge. A few years later, his agency was bought by a… chemical company. Hardly having a choice, but game for anything it seems, George learnt chemistry! That is not to say he abandoned his creative pursuits, especially his beloved Renaissance Art which, in due course and after a few more funny loops, led him to Russia on a quest for an icon painter/teacher. Not only did he find him but he discovered, using as his master still did the traditional mineral pigments, how different a paint these made, from any he had used before. Why? What could be so different about them? The artist was excited… the chemist was piqued! The man was perhaps falling in love…

Had it not been for the passionate about icons too (their lovely house is full of them!) and most charming Tatiana, would George have taken the trouble to explore this —fascinating yes — but somewhat obscure field of investigation? Do we owe a paint line to passion then? It seems that might be the case, and most probably too we should put that in the plural… a reciprocal passion for Ivory Black/Delft Blue eyes plus, but of course, a passion for Old Masters and natural pigments! (You might have wondered why the company’s watercolours, oil paints and mediums lines are called Rublev? You have your answer right here: after icon painter Andrei Rublev. The name Rublev (perhaps better known than their company’s) is, now you know, a double homage!)

Their passion grew… First into Iconofile, a non-for-profit organisation which aimed at making icons better appreciated and known in the US and then, from the pigments they used in their workshops, into paint/binder/medium making… As you can imagine, it didn’t happen overnight. In fact, trials and errors were many. For starters, and although George could see how additives not only altered the feel of the paint but seemed to tame them into less interesting, more standardised versions of themselves, no one was still making paint with pigments alone… Further research made him understand that the pigments’ particles shape and size were also a vital part of the equation. The pigments’ specifications a paintmaker will buy today have been dictated by Industry’s needs rather than Art’s. As a result, pigments are nearly always ground to a particle size chosen for the hardware’s opacity and tinting strength requirements. They want to maximise their profits and a very high hiding, very high tinting pigment will do just that… Obviously too, if you are painting your wall rather than glazing that area of your artwork, transparency is hardly a quality! Standards dictate most industries, and in Pigment Size World, the standard is a maximum of 44 microns, which corresponds to a 325 mesh sieve. Larger than that, the particles are discarded but much much finer they usually are. In previous centuries, these had been hand ground of course and their sizes were not only much bigger but their shapes more diverse…. it might seem a fine point to you but, at the tip of your brush, it actually makes a huge difference!

I could go on about the impact of particle shape and size (and do in the book I’m writing… coming out… well sort of soon I hope!) but rather than get too technical here I would like to move on to the other advantages there are in using ‘older’ pigments. For one, you know for sure if they are permanent and stable, for two if they are lightfast… Time has done both jobs for you… Check out Tania’s fab Zinc tee-shirt, and you’ll discover one of N.P.’s foes. Zinc white was first used by watercolour artists under the commercial, and brilliant Winsor and Newton, name of Chinese White (anything that came from China then was most sought after and highly regarded.) As a watercolour pigment, it’s perfectly OK in fact, still now, but linseed oil and Zinc created such a slow drying mixture that it took a long time for the pigment to take off in oil ranges. The addition of drying oils changed that but, like most things which happen faster than they are meant too, this eventually results in a poor, brittle paint film. The cracks might not be immediately visible of course, but over time most certainly are. Even mixed with other whites, you should really simply avoid the stuff it has now been proven. (Look out for PW4 on the back of your tubes… then throw them out!)

Up there is some of the in-house “stack” Lead White (well it’s actually produced in a little shed on the side… it does sit under manure for a while!)
Why not give it a go one day ? It’s very special paint and you might just fall in love… just be that little bit more careful with it of course.

Zinc is not the only offender of course and other pigments that have revealed themselves unstable over time are now long off the shelves… On the other hand, lightfastness — if similar as it is also about deterioration/shift overtime of an artwork — is another problem. No one wants to lose the beautiful colours of their artworks… I don’t even know what the philosophical Van Gogh would say if he saw his Geranium Lake backgrounds today entirely turned to a non-descript beige but maybe not what he said back then: “all the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable,” he wrote to his brother Theo, in 1888, adding in another letter later that “paintings fade like flowers.” Today, painters are perhaps not even that concerned about their works surviving into the next decade — forget century — but in our precarious world, it has become the #1 quality of paint it seems. (And after all, you do not want to cross the street when you meet one of your patrons!) A quality, George O’Hanlon takes very seriously. He is not alone, Gamblin and Golden are also on the warpath and tracking/retesting all the modern “lightfast” pigments. Some of these, it turns out, have revealed themselves not to be quite as good as their ASTM rating — sometimes old and also not de facto applicable to the actual pigment used. Again this is not the place to go into all the technical details of lightfastness (just pre-order my book, haha), but it’s fascinating research. A costly one, both in time and equipment, but one Natural Pigments is committed to, which is fantastic. Meanwhile, and until we know better, feel free to use those pigments that have been around for centuries and proven their worth, you’ll find most of them in their catalogue… and on their website which is so info-filled and has so many great articles that you might just spend a few days reading it!

George and Tania, who is extremely knowledgeable in her own right, have both devoted their lives it seems not only to a quest for the perfect paint (that doesn’t exist, of course, every artist will like this medium better, this grittiness better, this hue better) but to making extremely thoroughly the most unadulterated and reliable paints/mediums/binders. You might think that that’s what most good paintmakers aim for too! And yes, that true. But up to a point only as each serious paintmaker has his own approach and philosophy and that will result in quite different paints. What’s different here is that their joy seems to be just as big when they fulfil their second mission… helping painters find their way back to the joy of the craft, discover the pleasure there is in knowing intimately the materials they use daily or the provenance of the pigments, enjoy the confidence they can both trust their materials and get the best results out of them. However essential for them to engage in dialogues with conservators and other like-minded paint companies, I would venture too that the most important dialogues might still perhaps be the ones established between them, colour(wo)man, and you, crafts(wo)man. (I know for a fact that if you have a question… it will be answered… promptly and in full!) The company also produces several ‘crazy’ products you can only imagine will answer the needs of perhaps three people on the planet (hardly profitable as you can guess) but… if there’s a need for it… if they can make the product well… if it gives artists another option… it’s available. AND they know all about it… intimately!

It gives me hope, in a strange sort of way, about us as people, about our future, when I see love and dedication in action and these efforts recognised and valued… I also hope I’ve been up to the task of sharing that with you!

Best wishes G&T for your research and testing of pigments and… thanks for it on our behalf!

PS: Amazingly perhaps… I sure hope to be back in Willits one day… I loved it all!

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