Art might be dead but pushing colour around with a brush, a rag, a finger whether to create a realist, surrealist or abstract view of our inner and outer worlds, still give us as much pleasure as, I’m sure, the very first guys that did it had. And if knowing what’s in the paint is not strictly necessary to a painter, I believe it a truly fascinating domain which can also give artists incredible pleasure as it will increase their technical options. You might discover if you stick to your practice, that, as many do, you will play for months and sometimes for years with a paint, its mediums, grounds and finishes, only to change at some stage… in a effort to find the paint that best reflects your vision at that time.
Compare these two paintings from Andrew Wyeth: same talent, same subject, virtually same angle but the first one is painted with tempera paint and the other in watercolour and, although both are delightful, what a difference between them!
You obviously cannot play with all the materials and paints (I do but then… I’ve bought the shop!) but don’t panic or despair in art stores either. Slowly you probably will build quite an art supplies “wardrobe”… some shoes not often worn, some evening dresses once a life time, some on every other day! Yes, we are sooooo lucky to have that many options these days but you might never use some of them or even be attracted! Just remember (my advice and I’ll stick my guns whatever your art teacher tells you) to buy the best paint or materials you can afford on any given day. Quality is really an issue with materials and substandard ones simply do not do the job.
And so, back to the beginning.
All art books, begin with the prehistoric cave paintings our ancestors left us: to our eyes, extremely free and modern artworks that cover the walls of caves in Europe, Africa and Australia. And yet I believe that these mark makings came after thousands of years of humans playing with colour already. Men and women perhaps not so interested in making marks, i.e. in leaving traces of their existence on earth, but happy to play in the here and now of timelessness nevertheless. Every civilisation, men everywhere, seem to have found the same delight in adorning themselves, changing themselves, highlighting themselves. Body painting, primitive versions of make up, masks must be in every man’s collective memory or unconscious. Apparently useless tattoos have preceded sensible pullovers by centuries and centuries it seems. And I believe that each of us, containing all of the past forms within us just as we preserve the older layer of cortical development within the physical brain, have the same pure joy at colouring, at seeing under our hands something radically transform and come to life. I say joy but perhaps I should say fear too. When we come to realize we have creation and radical transformation in our hands, there is magic, there is power and there is awe too.
To celebrate and colour the body, ochres and clays are all that was and is needed. Mixed with water, these will -for a little time at least- stick to bodies, to hair. To increase that bond, they can easily be mixed with fat, resin, blood. All sorts of glues, Nature offers generously and were probably easily discovered by men… We can only guess all of this if course since, whether they lasted a day or a life time under skin, they have gone with them. Probably the reason why art history never goes back that far, true art being only lasting art in the critics view of the world. A position most disputed these days…
Had the rock paintings of the Gwion Gwion in the Kimberleys kept their organic binding agents, we would be able to date them. As it is, all traces of how the inorganic ochre (and thus undatable) pigments were technically bound to these cave walls is gone however. The only “precise” datation possible so far, is a fossilized wasps’ nest that was caught between the earth and the walls of a cave when it collapsed. Have you ever wondered what was the point of wasps at all? Well, now you’ve got at least one good reason to be thankful for their existence… as that mere nest has put the date of the earliest works of Australian rock art back to some 25,000 to 35,000 years ago (as a marker earliest Egyptian art is maximum 7000 years old).
Remoteness, specific geological and climatic conditions have thus preserved here or there on the planet some of these “artworks”. Maybe many many more have been created by our ancestors making each of us the legitimate son or daughter of a painter… who knows? The binding medium is gone and with it, usually, the work. We can presume on vegetable juices, animal fats etc. but actually, in the case of these surviving works, the media has obviously not been decisively important to the preservation of the artwork as usually all that is left is the colour maker: the pigment.
I go into the details of each binder (and other additives) in the relevant sections, including all the drawing materials, however most paints and colouring materials are the result of a mixture of –at the very minimum– pigment and a binder of some sort.
- Arabic gum in Watercolours and Gouache;
- Wax and resin in Encaustic
- Wax (mineral or natural) is also found as a binding medium in oil sticks, oil pastels, pencils and crayons
- Chinese ink (better known under the English misnomer: Indian ink) is made of lamp black pigment ground in water with a little shellac dissolved in alcohol to make it water resistant and lacquer like.
- Tempera is the name given to colours which are bound with an emulsion (a mixture of substances, some soluble and some insoluble in water) and stabilized with an emulsifying agent such as a egg or casein glue. Tempera can be made with a variety of emulsions: egg alone, egg and oil, gum emulsions, wax emulsions, even oil alone.
- Oil is obviously the binder in oil paint. These days it is usually linseed oil or –as linseed does tend to yellow a bit– in better brands, stand oil –a sub-product generated by heating linseed oil for a few days at near 300°c– while poppy seed is also used in some ranges for the lighter colours.
- Acrylic resins are a subgroup of vinyls and polymerization of the acrylic acid molecule leads to various forms of plastics. These variations can be dispersed in water, producing a familiar milky liquid. The common name for that product is a “polymer dispersion”. That is the binder in acrylic paint.
You can make your own paint, you can even make your own pastels. There are some ready made binders on the market or you can go ahead and reinvent the wheel. You will need a muller and a slab, both available in glass in most art stores that also sell pigments. You might need a bit of patience and wrist grease too but the exhilaration of actually making your paint is beyond belief. (If you are making an acrylic paint I would personally begin from a pigment dispersion as that first stage of dispersion in water can be a bit tricky. These are now quite easily found on the market.)
If you want to use these paints as soon as they are done, you should be fine. If you want to preserve them, you might have to really document each paint and pigment you are using… some pigments need stabilizers and temperas rot in a few days for example!
On the whole I would say: “Don’t do it to save money!” Do it for fun, do it to get to know and understand what goes into a paint. Do it for technical reasons if you will too. I have an artist who usually paints a series with the same background colour. He premixes the colour of his choice using pigments and an acrylic binder. It saves him money because he needs such a huge quantity of the same colour and it makes his life easier to start from the same batch each work, giving him too the consistency he craves.
For whatever reasons, go ahead… give it a go!
If you missed previous episodes… there they are:
click if you want to know more about What is a pigment?
click if you want to know more about Historical pigments
click if you want to know more about Modern pigments
click if you want to know more about Colours and families of pigments