The Rise and Fall of Artists and Their Materials

When the artists were creating the wonderful paintings in the dark caves of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, that being 15,000 to 30,000 years ago, they were already technically pretty far advanced. The pigments they used and the permanence of the pigment and binders were so good that we can still enjoy the wonder of their creations today. Oh that our paintings would last that well even with our ‘supposedly’ advanced technology!


Since those ancient times artists have endeavoured to improve the range of colours and the permanence of the products they use. Often even to the extent of risking their lives. Some of the colours that were deemed to be desirable and permanent were also extremely toxic.


It must have been a real trial for aspiring artists to learn the chemistry and formulas that had been discovered and used by their predecessors, and then also trying to find better methods and formulas when those passed down to them were suspect or flawed. All this research and study while creating some of the great masterpieces that glorify our museums, stately buildings and churches around the world.


Was it that intimate knowledge of their materials that enabled them to paint and sculpt the way that they did?


Perhaps that requirement of being artist, technician and chemist was what gave them an edge over modern arts practitioners?


The Apprentice system saw to it that prospective artists were properly trained in all aspects of art making. Today very few artists have any idea about all those things that were known, and that allowed art to reach such greatness and permanence before its great tumble to where it is today. In fact today neither do the majority of teachers know these things today.


As far as painting and sculpture goes we do not seem to have advanced all that much, if at all in the last 150 years. A great many of the contemporary artists, (I am not necessarily referring here to academic contemporary artists either), seem to have little or no interest in their work surviving at all. In the main they are very true to the concept of the throw-away society, and if most work being made at this time lasts for longer than a couple of decades, if that, it will be surprising to say the least.


As strange as it may seem, the one side of the visual arts coin seems to almost scorn art surviving for posterity, while the other side just has no clue about how to make it survive. Perhaps it is that they have little interest or respect for their own work or the people who buy their artworks. (I have dealt with the issue of ‘respect’ in a recent article). The reason I say this is because if one looks at the very high quality of artist’s materials manufactured and available to us now, then it is strange that the greatest demand is in fact for inferior materials. One can then draw no other conclusion than the one I have just presented: artists either do not have sufficient knowledge of the process of painting, respect for their creations or just do not care.


Many of the art stores here only stock student’s paints now. I wonder if this because they are cheaper? Is it because it is believed that there is no difference between artist’s paints and student’s paints? They appear to be the same but are they? Do any of the ‘Artists’ that use this cheaper stuff ever wonder why they are cheaper?


Let me take a moment to tell you. They are cheaper because they are inferior to artist’s quality products. That is why they are cheaper, but the perception that they are cheaper also has to be questioned. They are inferior because although in some cases the pigments may be the same as in the artist’s paint, the difference is that far less of the pigment is used. The rest being fillers and extenders such as Alumina Hydrate for transparent colours (A cheap powder which takes on the colour of the pigment) or Blanc Fixe or even talcum powder for opaque colours and white.


In a letter from my very knowledgeable friend Cassandra at Winsor and Newton she explains that although the very best fillers and extenders are used in student’s paints (They have to use high quality fillers and extenders as cheaper versions can destroy the optical brightness of the pigments) still the quantity of pigment is greatly reduced or substitutes for original pigments are used e.g. paint tube labels with ‘Hue’ written after the description, e.g. Cobalt Blue (Hue), where instead of Cobalt Blue pigment a mix of cheaper


Ultramarine and Pthalocyanine blue is used. Not a dot of the very lightfast and permanent Cobalt in it. Same with Cadmium Yellow Hue. Some manufacturers call the substitutes ‘Tints’.


Even though ethical companies such as the world famous Winsor and Newton and other leading artist’s colourmen manufacture the highest quality artists products, they must be concerned when artists use less of their Artist’s products and pass off their Student materials as the real thing?


I encouraged some of my students who had never used artist’s quality paints to buy a tube of Winsor and Newton Titanium White recently. I firmly believe it is the best white oil paint in the world. They all admitted the difference was like chalk and cheese. There is little comparison between the student’s products and the professional Artists materials.


There is also this thing about false economy in that you use far less of the artist’s quality paint because the tinting/covering power is so much greater.


Now again we must ask the question, do artists use the cheaper, inferior paint because they do not care if their paintings survive or if they do not know. Or perhaps that they have just not bothered to take the trouble to learn about the materials they use and that are available to them?


I have on more than one occasion heard artists say “I do not care about all that stuff – I just paint.” Is this what a large number of artists think?


I realise there are many people who paint as a pastime or hobby, others may want to merely experiment and do not care if the work lasts or not, so buying expensive materials for them serves very little purpose. I really do believe though that as soon as one’s intention is to sell your work, then you need to use the very best you can afford in the way of materials, or else it is tantamount to cheating or thievery. If you use cheap and nasty stuff and are charging high or reasonably high prices, those investing in your work believe they are buying quality that will last and do not know that they are being hoodwinked. You may as well be selling Rolex watches on the street corner with cheap movements inside the cases. It is the same kind of mentality. No different! Crookery is crookery no matter how you look at it.


Up to this point we have only looked at pigment, but perhaps even more important is what you paint your pictures on. The supports, be they canvas or paper, need to be as permanent as the colours we use.


Working with art students I am constantly exposed to all that is fashionable, cheap or questionable. So too with paint, canvas, paper, fad paints, odd mediums, fashion tricks and the rest. I see it all. Students are prime targets for untested products.


In the last few years all sorts of back-yard experts have emerged, making paint, primers, and canvases. Much of the paint and some pastels too mislead the buyer by having ‘Artists Quality’ printed on the label. Most of it is anything but.


This is not to say that all paint or canvases made locally or on a small scale are bad. On the contrary, some excellent stuff is being made in this country e.g. the Zellen range made in the Western Cape contains high quantities of quality pigment and drying oils. But buyer beware, there are also paints and supports that are not what they are claimed to be, and I have personally run tests where white Titanium has turned brown in a matter of months and colours have changed or faded within the short period of a year.


Canvases are even a greater nightmare and it seems to have become almost a fashion to buy homemade canvases that are in many cases primed with Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA). I have read in a locally produced “how to” art book that all you require to paint in oils is a piece of seed cloth and a splash of PVA. I cannot think of worse possible advice! I have some dozen excellent artists Handbooks and Manuals in my studio and not one advocates using PVA as a primer for artwork. The reasons being that in the first place commercial PVA is generally of too low a quality to use in fine artwork. Also that PVA quickly becomes brittle and flakes off or it breaks down and leaves your painting attached to nothing more than a touch of often low quality pigment and a lot of filler. Try sticking anything to powder. I have seen many paintings by well know artists literally disintegrate within a score of years.


Canvases primed with commercial wall paint, especially those that contain mica or Teflon beads are just as disastrous as PVA, as they are formulated to stop grease, grime and oily substances from sticking to them, and no matter how tough we are told they are, because of the formulation your painting is going to sooner rather than later peel right off.


Artist’s primers and gessoes are very carefully formulated to last and to seal the fabric from the paint. You do not want the oil from the paint bleeding through and coming into contact with the cloth. It turns acid and soon rots your support away.
As I indicated PVA used as a primer breaks down very quickly. Try wiping your hand on a wall that has been painted with PVA and you will see, unless it’s very fresh, it will come away with white powdery residue on it. Artists paint cannot stick to powder or filler and so it will also soon peel off or at best crack very badly. A customer who buys a painting that comes apart will not buy your work again. Neither will galleries continue to buy work that is going to embarrass them or cause problems for them.


If you find that top brand primers or acrylic gesso is too expensive for you and the cost is a factor, then rather use pure acrylic emulsion paint available from hardware stores, or if you prefer an oil-based primer use one of the Alkyd primers available. Remember if you use the Alkyd/oil primer you need to size the canvas first by coating it with two coats of rabbit-skin glue or good quality gelatine.


The fabric support used for painting on is also critical. Although there is nothing quite like linen, especially oil primed Belgian linen, the price has become prohibitive for us here in South Africa and none but the very top earning artists can afford to use it very often now. There are two other choices of fabric and those are cotton or polyester. Cotton still appears to be a favourite and especially insofar as the backyard boys go. Here we again run into problems as many of these ‘manufacturers’ have little or no knowledge of the requirements for making artists materials. On many occasions I have had students really battling with their canvas only to find that the producer of the supports has used a fabric such as denim which has a twill weave. The weave is totally wrong for painting on as it has a sort of diagonal weave and artist’s canvas requires a vertical and horizontal weave.


Even canvases bought from art shops cannot be totally trusted any longer. Because artists are continually demanding cheaper stuff the artist’s supplies stores respond by buying cheap and nasty products from the east. These canvases are often so thin that you can press your finger through the material and the primer is of such low quality that the oil in the paint leaches right through into the fabric. Those paintings are guaranteed dead before they even leave the studio. But then we must ask does it matter? As long as some unsuspecting buyer is dumb enough to buy the work who cares? By the time they discover their painting is falling apart the painter will be hard to find. That makes it OK. No different from building houses that crack and fall apart? That is the way we do things now, isn’t it?


Not all small art materials manufacturers or people making canvases locally are bad. In fact far from it. In Durban we have Garth Radmore who has been in the art materials business for most of his life and put in a lot of research and has gone to a lot of trouble to produce a quality product with quality primers. The word on his canvases so far has been very positive. He can be contacted on cell: 083 656 7899 or e-mail if you are interested. There are a number of people making good materials here and getting better all the time.


The problem with low quality materials however cannot only be blamed on the art stores, the manufacturers and Artists themselves, but also on teachers and lecturers who in many cases encourage their students to use cheap and nasty products. If the painting is going to be left behind the studio door or for personal use or pure experimentation then it really does not matter what you do or use, but some teachers, knowing full well that the work has been made with sub-standard materials still encourage their students to put that work on exhibition and often charge more than substantial prices for these art-works that will in all probability soon self-destruct.


I have dealt mainly with oils and canvas but the same goes for all other mediums. Cheap pastels where the colour fades out in a few years. Substandard paper and supports. Watercolours on poor wood-pulp paper and cheap students paints. Fugitive inks which are very bright when they have just been applied but that will more than likely fade out and become blue or grey after only a few years. Even some sculptures are being made with poor quality materials.


We cannot close an article like this without dealing with presentation and framing. One of the areas of worst damage can be found in cheap and bad framing.


Artists can use acid-free paper and the best paint available and then someone takes it in for framing, and to save costs they use grey cardboard to back the painting, and use glue or cheap tape to flatten or hinge the painting (I have yet to see a flat watercolour in an art museum). In no time the pristine painting is impregnated with mould and fungus. To add to the damage the final blow is to use that nasty brown paper to cover the back of paintings. It’s only real use is in providing a good source of food for fish-moths and other paper or canvas damaging beasts. It also is a good way of sucking up moisture, especially if you live in a humid climate like I do. Nothing better to destroy a painting than moisture. Tear that ghastly stuff off the back of your painting immediately. You probably have been told it stops dust. What utter rubbish.


I wrote to Winsor and Newton who are the largest and possibly the best makers of artist’s materials in the world to find if these problems I speak of are particular to South Africa, or if it is an international trend. That is of artists taking 30,000 years of progress and development and trashing it in a matter of a few short years. It seems it is an international trend but particularly bad here. Winsor and Newton, who are always very helpful and honest seem to indicate that artists are using cheaper and lower quality materials but assure us that they continue to make artists materials of the very best quality and encourage artists to use the very best they can. The use of unproved backyard materials is of concern to them too.


Of course the world recession is always a good excuse for making sub-standard art works. We can use that.


I really believe if this is the mindset of our current society and the way we are going to go in future, I’d rather throw my lot in with the artists of 30,000BC. At least they were not going backwards.


The question then is ‘Why is there this attitude and do we want or need to have this mind-set? Is what I’m saying true or not?


Of course, in an article of this nature, one tends to generalise and there are people using good materials and presenting good value for money. There are so many though who are not, and in effect cheating their customers. Maybe they do not even see it as that. How often though do I hear of people complaining about being crooked by a builder, plumber or lawyer? This is pretty rich when they are in reality no different and doing exactly the same.


Let’s think about this and then move forward and do what is right!


Till next month….


Written: March 2010



  • Susan (Sue) Scott

    Remember me? Watercolour lessons at Westville North Library! Love your article. After a long period of “inactivity” (working and studying … pre-primary teacher) painting in oils now. Still battling to “loosen up”. Happy painting.

    • John Smith

      Sure I remember you Sue. I’m pleased you liked my article – you can see more at my website I’m very pleased to hear you are still painting.
      Fond wishes

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