Art Gallery Gauvin

Australian Bush Legends

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An artist's life without paint-tubes

July 11, 2012

In times past, simply making up a day's worth of paint required a cost in effort and time few of us would be prepared to pay. If you will, imagine yourself as the sixteen-year-old Leonardo, in the studio of his Master. The task would go like this:

You feel proud the Master has trusted you with the job of making the ground-up pigment into paint but you keep your face from betraying your thoughts. Pride mixes with a doubt lurking in your mind: has the Master chosen you only because you are so much bigger, so much stronger than other boys your age? Then, emptying your mind of these worries, you bend to the job. Your heart hammers with hope that you will be chosen to work on the great picture under way on the Master's easel.

From a vessel of oil the Master prepared, you spill a judicious few drops onto the powdered pigment and using a palette knife, mix it into a paste. As the paste reaches the prescribed consistency, you straighten your spine and roll your shoulders to loosen strained muscles. You clean the blade with a cloth and grasp the neck of the heavy glass muller with both hands. Now begins the really hard work of the process.

Not daring to lift your eyes from what is happening beneath your hands, you rub the muller over the paste. Again you rub, then again and again and yet again. After a while, you pause to add another drop of oil, then continue the grinding. At last, the rasping sound of grit between glass and marble fades away. The paste now reflects the lamplight from a smooth and glossy surface that is fit to present for the Master's approval. Or not.

  • About 400 years after Leonardo, the Industrial Revolution produced a breakthrough for artists.
  • Art historians propose that the Impressionist movement would not have happened without the introduction of paint in tubes.
  • In the mid-nineteenth century, chemists perfected the pre-mixing of pigments with a 'medium' or vehicle to carry the pigment as a paint that flows freely from the brush.

For artists who work on paper, the vehicle is water with the addition of small amounts of an adhesive - various binders such as gums, caseins and even egg yolk. Oil is the preferred medium for artists who work on canvas. Since each pigment dries at a rate peculiar to its chemical composition, artists used to spend long hours studying the characteristics of each colour and testing its behaviour as a paint when applied to a 'ground' of paper or canvas.

  • When chemists added modifying agents - driers or retardants - to read-mixed paint, artists were freed to treat all colours as equals.

Now that paint could be preserved for a longer period, artists could choose between the frenzied race to complete a work before their paints dried up or setting a more relaxed schedule. Easy to use paint was now available in all colours and in a form transportable to open air locales. Manufacture of paint in bulk quantities made it economical to lay on in thicker layers, in a spontaneous style of brushwork.

  • With the invention of lead tubes in 1841, the messy chore of packing paint into a pig bladder or a vial of glass was also eliminated.

Like any artist of the twenty-first century, I take manufactured, high-grade paints in tubes for granted. In fact, I've sometimes been so blase about this magnificent invention that on finishing a day's work, I've left the studio without making sure each tube had its cap firmly screwed back in place. Having researched the subject for this article, I now hold a deeper gratitude towards those who invented the paint tube.

Having researched the subject for this article, I now hold a deeper gratitude towards those who invented the paint tube. Maybe you'll feel the same, next time you squeeze paint from a tube onto your palette.© Dorothy Gauvin

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