On Art Materials; Their Use, Quality and Availability

When I was no more than eight or nine years old my dad bought me a box of professional quality watercolours. I cannot remember what the occasion was, but he was a wonderful artist and loved going to Mrs Moller’s art shop. This was the first time that he had taken me along on official business. How excited I was as we selected the japanned box and then carefully chose the individual ½ pans while he explained to me why each colour was important and why it had been selected. Also why it was important to buy the best you could afford. The cherry on the top was a Sable watercolour brush. Almost sixty years later I still have that old battered box and the sable brush which is now old and very worn, but still works.


I have never forgotten that lesson and later when I went to Johan Oldert for lessons in oil painting I was reminded of it again. Student’s colours or inferior materials were never even considered. The intention was that whatever one produced was meant to last. This is now perhaps an old fashioned idea but for me is still really important.


The cost of materials was, in those days, of little consequence. They were such a small part of the total cost when compared to the price of the painting. Making art then was also not seen merely as a manufacturing process whereby decorative commodities were produced.


It was something really special and so were the artists. There was respect for art and those that made art. Being in the presence of an established artist back then was easily equal to being in the presence of the “dominie” or the family doctor. Younger readers may find my reference to the doctor or parish priest confusing, but there was a time when the lady of the house would get into a real froth at the prospect of the doctor coming, and feet had to be washed and clean pyjamas were always kept at the ready in a drawer. The house had to be pristine and it was the closest thing next to being visited by royalty. Perhaps this was only pipped by a visit from the priest and I remember well some quite tough Afrikaans friends of ours, actually shaking when the dominie arrived unexpectedly one day. As a young sinner I could not at that time comprehend what all the fuss was about but it was the way things were back then. There was this thing now forgotten, but it was known as respect. We had that kind of respect for well established artists and I am happy to say it has not left me. I still have that sense of awe and deep respect for people who do things really well or can think deeply and clearly.


Sadly things have changed and we find ourselves in this throw-away consumer society where little has any real lasting value. Do we however, as a society, really feel this way about art – and should we? Do the majority of us feel that a work of art is merely a temporary thing and should be discarded with the worn out curtains and cushions or a change in fashion?


If we do, then this no-doubt explains why so many artists are no longer particularly bothered about using the best quality materials. Gallerists are not insistent that the work that comes into their galleries has some kind of guarantee regarding longevity and quality. All that matters is that it matches the curtains and the cushions and no doubt the intention is that ten years or less down the line the art is hoofed out with the furnishings. Art now only survives the latest fashion, marketing strategy or endures as long as the current academic discourse.


This too is the current trend in many of our large corporate groups, and has filtered down into our daily lives.


Once upon-a-time large companies were collectors of enduring art, but now it seems with many, expediency and political correctness have become the buzz-word.




Being a painter my knowledge and experience is essentially focused around painting, and that is what I will talk about. However one does not have to be all that clever to detect similarities in sculpture, the music industry and so too literature. Little now is designed to last. I’m not sure if it was in fact ever designed to last and perhaps materials were just purer and better made and so much of it did last. If one reads about the tireless research by the early artists to find new methods and materials, then one has to believe that it was their intention that their creations endured.


There is a wonderful book titled ‘Colour – Travels Through the Paintbox’ by Victoria Finlay which is well worth reading. It tells of the jigsaw puzzle that was pieced together bit by bit and which today gives us the wonderful assortment of pigments and colours available to us.


Bit by bit the colours and art materials evolved, and so became safer to use and more permanent. It did not just happen and was not always so. Many of us take it all for granted and perhaps rightly so. We cannot be expected to ‘say grace’ every time we sit down to paint a picture, but I do think we need to be thankful to those pioneers who did so much, and have respect for them.
To give one some idea of the paintstakingly slow journey to reach this point, we must consider that during the whole period of the Egyptians, only very few colours were discovered or added to the artist’s palette. About six in all. Then during the whole existence of the Roman Empire, few additional new colours were added to those. Possibly only three in number. This gives one some idea of how difficult it was to get to where we are today. Some colours that were discovered were lethal and we all know about the heavy metal pigments and especially the lead based paints but there were even more lethal pigments than those made from arsenic and other equally toxic chemicals.


We are indeed so lucky to be painting now in this modern age, but few of us even bother the read the fliers and literature provided for our edification. As long as it’s cheap all is well.


We do need to consider all the other elements that go into making a painting or other works of art besides the colours. Primers and supports are of no less importance.


I must add at this point that I’m sure the journey of sculpture must be equally as tortuous but I’ll keep with what I know best.




No matter what kind of hot-shot artist you believe you are, your work is only as good or as permanent as the support you paint on. The fabric and the primer, or any other support and primer, be that paper, canvas or board.


If you are using oil paint there is no doubt whatsoever that the tried and tested, good quality linen canvas, oil primed, is still by far the best and has stood the test of time. As has linen based rag watercolour paper. Sadly oil-primed linen is prohibitively expensive and rag made papers containing linen rather than cotton is virtually unobtainable as far as I know.


So what does one do? Well I guess you have to do some research and find the very best alternatives available.


What in fact has been happening is that every Tom, Dick and Jenny who with little knowledge or training now set themselves up as producers of canvases or manufacturers of artists paint. In many of the cases, without any real background in, or knowledge of the processes employed in the making of art, they make/stretch canvases or paint, and both wannabe artists, some pro artists too, and even art teachers embrace them as if they were prodigal sons (and daughters) and national heroes. This support from misguided ‘professionals’ makes what they are doing legitimate, and in many cases it ends up with disastrous results.


The cotton used for this home industry is bought by the new entrepreneurs at any available store and has in some cases been bleached or contains starch (a no-no) or in the case of polyesters they use fabric that is not UV protected; and then to top it off they use a variety of commercial household wall paints as primers. Many of these contain Teflon or Mica to inhibit dirt, grease or grime sticking to the surface. Just the thing you need to ‘stick’ your paint to. Remember that paint is like glue and adhesion to the surface of the support is vital. Others call their primers “Gesso”. ‘Acrylic’ gesso (The word Gesso is Italian for gypsum) but it is not anything like the original gesso. It is not even vaguely the kind of gesso the old master’s used and is in fact nothing more than a hand-full of marble-dust (Calcium Carbonate) mixed into an acrylic emulsion or even the odious PVA (Polyvinyl Acetate) fairly indiscriminately. The result is generally pretty disastrous with the surface being too abrasive or absorbent, or the paint preferring to stay on the brush rather than attach itself to the primer.


This gesso which in many cases is being used as a primer is in fact a filler-coat and it should in fact be covered with a primer.


Remember too that in many cases the pigment/filler ratio in commercial paint is pretty low and if the binder breaks down your painting is in trouble.


As I indicted at the beginning, your art work is only as good as the support on which it is painted.


In the late 70’s and 80’s some bright spark artist discovered PVA (Polyvinyl Acetate) and started using it as a primer. Many jumped on the band-wagon and started priming their boards and canvases with this commercial wall paint.


In a while warning whispers were heard and some heeded this warning and went back to tried and tested primers; others ignored them, including well established artists selling at high prices. Within a few years paintings started cracking and flaking off. It was almost impossible to restoring or save these paintings as the PVA binder had broken down and the paintings ended up lying on a bed of powder consisting of a hint of pigment and loads of filler.


Commercial wall paint, no matter how fancy the name is, is not designed as an artist’s primer. If you do not care about your work or feel that being careful and using archival quality materials is being precious, then please carry on. Or preferably give up art and do something you do really care about.


Personally I believe that ALL artists should be compelled to list the materials they have used in a painting or sculpture similar to that used on food packaging. Whether a collector/buyer is going to pay a large sum or pay anything at all for a work of art, they are entitled to know that they are buying something that will last and that they are getting value for their money. There is no way that artists can assure the buying public of the longevity or quality of their work if they do not know what goes into the products they are using. Artists, if they care about their work, must demand from their suppliers to know what they are getting and what materials are being used. It is the artist’s right to know and their duty to their customers for them to know what they are getting. It seems to me that buying art is becoming more and more like buying second-hand cars. Buyers beware!


I must stress here that there are a number of small businesses in South Africa and I’m sure all over the world, which are making up canvases, supports, and making artists quality paint and other materials that are very good indeed. They should and must be supported. There are also those that are using poor quality or non- art quality materials and they should be avoided at all costs until they can assure the artists that what they are making is of an archival standard. (I could mention framers falling into the same categories here but we’ll leave that for another article which will be sooner rather than later). Learners or amateur artists may want to use the cheaper student’s quality products but I would urge them to move to the artist’s quality as soon as they start selling their work. There is besides the price a huge, huge difference!




The making of artists pigment and the search for permanent pigment has been on-going for at least 30,000 years. As I indicated, artists have risked their lives in this search for quality, that is up till now. Currently anything will do as long as it’s good enough to fool the buyer (If the buyers still care that is) and it’s cheap.


Although there are many producers of very high quality artist’s materials still available in the world, the one that stands out and absolutely everyone knows, is the English company Winsor and Newton. They have become the benchmark for consistent paints, mediums and brushes. A visit to their factory will soon tell you why. The reason is uncompromising research and quality control. Everything is tested and retested. When you buy a tube of paint with the W and N label on, it comes with a couple of hundred years of research and experience. So too with their brushes and the other products they produce. The pigment they use is sourced from all over the world and constantly checked for quality. (Before you start sending me angry letters accusing me of favouritism, let me assure you I am not paid one cent for promoting them or any other company, and what I say so many of you already know) There are many other companies that also produce excellent products such as Schminke, Talens, Grumbacher, Blockx, Lukas, Maimeri etc. I believe quality and consistency must be applauded.


Knowing this, why is it then that so many artists and teachers of art will sing the praises of, and encourage their peers and students to buy products that are untested or that they know nothing about only because they are local or cheap? Advertise them by all means but first be sure of their credentials. Assure yourselves that the quality of their products and their pigments are in fact what the labels say they are. If they have labels that is.


If a company does not clearly state what is in their products, and the authenticity of pigment on their label (or easily obtainable literature), then do not touch it. You will only perpetuate a fraud by misleading your customers.


Remember that paintings and even many amateur paintings are being sold for thousands of Rands. That equates to the price of a fridge or stove or washing machine. If you had paid a few thousands for an appliance and found you had been duped you would be very angry and unhappy. Why do it with your art?




As far as I know there is no one manufacturing artist’s brushes or painting knives here in South Africa which rather surprises me. The art of brush-making has not changed much throughout history and requires skill, experience and nimble fingers. The nimble fingers we have here in abundance, and the skills and knowledge can be imported.


What we also have in abundance are imported brushes of such low quality one wonders why they are imported and stocked in the first place, and who uses them? The answer is quite simple – any art materials retailer (Artists colourman is the term) will tell you, “People will buy absolutely anything if it’s cheap!” Even if all the hairs fall out!


I’m afraid I’m one of those old fashioned people who believe rubbishy equipment produces rubbishy products and results, and here I mean artworks.


I have spoken much about my fear for our society, and more especially our arts community embracing and even venerating mediocrity. Where does this laizez-fair attitude start? With the end product or at the beginning…with the materials we use?


If we make a compromise with our materials we will surely compromise our art and visual arts in general.


We need to think about this long and hard. I have and do all the time – the question is do you!


Till next time….


Written: September 2011

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