A brief history of the Colorman

Philips Galle, engraving after Johannes Stradanus, “Color Olivi (Invention of Oil Painting)”, from Nova Reperta (New Discoveries), 1588. The collaborative nature of the business of art is apparent in Stradanus’s “Invention of Oil Painting”, as the central painter clearly cannot do everything by himself. He is focused on putting the final touches on a painting – possibly one of several copies for sale, all featuring Saint George and the Dragon – while leaving the bulk of the preparatory work, and even parts of the composition to his assistants. The two men on the right are preparing oil paint for the master by grinding pure pigment on a stone slab using a muller to combine the pigment with linseed oil. As a painter himself, Stradanus likely felt invested in including the labor and methods of painting in his Nova Reperta series – not only in this plate, but also in another engraving that depicts one of the raw materials for oil paint: the Invention of Olive Oil.

NOTE: This post was prepared and edited from a monograph I wrote more than 35 years ago. -P

Nearly all artists materials were originally made in the studio. They were pretty much the same stuff since Jan Van Eyck first discovered, around 1400 when he was 30 years old, a practical method of using oil paint.

The craft of oil painting remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of years right up to the Venetians, freeing the painter from a dependence on the filled outlines of tempera and fresco, and allowed for a freedom in ease and speed of painting undreamed of before. Where transitions of tone were once only achieved by laborious crosshatching, planned carefully in advance, the oil painter could obtain all manner of subtle gradations with ease. Changes that could only be effected with tremendous difficulty could be endlessly changed. Both fresco and tempera looked completely different when wet than dry — wet oil remained the same. Instead of dealing with line and the areas of color the lines contain, the oil painter could ponder light and dark in tone and the effects of space.

Adapting the pigments previously mixed with water, gum and egg required the talents of a color mixer who may have also had a hand with the master in preparing his unique mediums. Local apothecaries were called on to further refine and convert the powders, lumps or gums needed for a particular recipe or to supply raw materials. After laboriously grinding these materials in an oil or oil resin mixture for oils or gum for watercolor – we’ll never really know the exact formulas – they were ready to use. Oils needed to be applied right away since they dried rather fast, but watercolors, prepared with gums, could be shaped into lumps or daubed onto a rag for ready use by rewetting of water. This portable medium was used outdoors by Albrecht Dürer as early as the late 1500’s in his stunning landscapes. Every painter needed to know how to make his own paint. The painter trusted his color mixer and could be sure of a durable product.

Over time, divisions of labor in the large studios became respectable trades in their own right – such as the trade of the Colorman. By the 17th century, there were professional canvas primers and oil paint was readily available, premixed and stored in small pouches. Although many artists continued to prepare virtually all their own materials well into the 18th century, around the time of master watercolorist J.M.W. Turner, the trade of the Colorman gradually developed into a manufacturing business. For a while, their products did not greatly differ from the artists own hand. Complete trust was placed on the Colorman, who needed the knowledge of a scientist as well as knowledge of the needs of a painter to produce quality products. But the considerations of the artists workshop were not those of the Colorman and his manufacturing business. Closing out the 19th century were two inventions would change the way artists painted, forever: the invention of Rawlinson’s hand-operated single-roll grinding mill in 1804 – designed especially for the Colormen and recommended by the Royal Society of Arts, London – and the invention of the collapsible lead tube in 1841 by the American artist John Goffe Rand.Supported in large part by the growing “amateur” market, the large scale manufacturing of artists paint was underway, and the Colormen were ready to supply them with product, rapidly introducing a slew of bright new pigments to the artists’ palette, many of dubious quality. Pigments themselves, especially bright ones, were highly valued and the most expensive component of the manufacturing process. Thus, the Colorman quickly learned that he could add “fillers” or adulterants, greatly increasing economy of manufacturing costs. Although this was, of course, not the overriding reason – tubes were not airtight, linseed dried quickly, poppy was too buttery, stabilizers needed to be introduced – human nature being what it is, some Colormen were unscrupulous, and did their best to keep their own little formulas secret, greatly adding to the general confusion.

The Colorman’s trade was unregulated, no longer supervised by or proceeding under the guidance of knowledgeable painters. Although many artists were justifiably suspicious that their pigments were being adulterated with filler and were reluctant to purchase the new “ready-to-use” colors, many were not so enlightened. And, as these modern painters knew less and less about their materials and techniques, finger-pointing ensued as the quality of paint declined. Due to the vast expansions of the chemical industry during this time, many new pigments were being developed and used, with practically no regard for their permanence or safety. Different ingredients shared the same title, pigments were randomly named and renamed and often given romantic or otherwise interesting but misleading names, which continues to this day.

The metal paint tube was first invented by American oil painter John Goffe Rand as a way of transporting paints to use outside. The tubes were in fact syringes which were used to squeeze out paint and preserved the paint for a longer time, allowing artists increased flexibility and the possibility of a larger palette, as colours took longer to perish. Upon hearing of this stunning innovation William Winsor immediately sought the patent, as Winsor & Newton were the only Colormen producing moist watercolor. Once the patent was secured, Winsor added one essential improvement to this design: the all-important screw cap. Thus the paint tube we know and love was born. In the photo above, you can track the journey from the traditional bladders, to the introduction of the syringe tube in 1840, and the tube cap introduced in 1904.

Fortunately, William Winsor, a scientist, and Henry Newton, a watercolorist, established their company in 1832 and began selecting the best of the new pigments, subjecting them to testing before product manufacture and introduction into the marketplace. Thus, by the end of the 19th century technology had greatly improved the materials of painters, substantially increasing the available color range and, for the most part, eliminating the need for costly, impermanent pigments. Not all painters, however, readily accepted the use and exploitation of the new pigments. Where J.M.W. Turner and Eugène Delacroix chose to experiment with many of the new pigments – Turner adding some fugitive colors to his palette; Delacroix more wary of impermanence issues – other late 19th century painters such as Francisco Goya, Jacques Louis David, and Theodore Géricault did not avail themselves of the new colors and continued to use the traditional “Old Masters” palette of red and yellow earths, blacks and grays, vermillion red and ultramarine blue right up until their deaths. One can only wonder what they might have produced with modern brilliant pigments.

The continuing trend of originality and creativity combined with disinterest and the lack of formal training in the painters craft has led me to the conclusion that the modern painter is technically incompetent, unskilled and ignorant of his rich artistic heritage. Thus, much modern art is destined to be short-lived, and many paintings completed in the last 75 years have already been subject to multiple forms of deterioration including fading of color due to use of fugitive pigments, cracking of paint surface due to the improper use oil/varnish mixtures, and degradation of the painting support due to lack of knowledge concerning preparation.

Considering the limited materials available to the artists of centuries past, the modern painter’s accomplishments seem trivial. Additionally, artists are no longer an important market for today’s colorman. In fact, less than 10% of all pigment used today is destined for fine art. The remaining 90% is relegated to various chemical and industrial concerns, primarily the printing industry, where permanence is not an overriding concern, and the automobile industry where pigments need to last only 10 or 20 years in direct sunlight. Nearly all the major manufacturers of artists pigments are giant corporations or a subsidiary of unrelated industries. They need to answer to their Board of Directors and shareholders who know that school, hobby, and crafts represent a larger market share than fine art, and are thus more profitable. Since most artists do not pay attention to these invisible trends, the manufacturers can continue to sell and introduce paints with meaningless exotic or romantic names in order to increase sales.

To search out and collect the various tomes and codices that will enlighten an artist to the grail of the painters craft can be most time consuming and untrustworthy. These mysterious old writings of original formulae are long gone and have been interpreted to modern language from ancient language so many times as to make them unreliable at best and dangerous at worst. One would have to time travel 400 years into the past to the master’s atelier and look over his shoulder as he worked to ascertain reliable recipes, concoctions and studio secrets. An in-depth study of this most interesting body of knowledge can, however, only be of great value to any professional or student. Plus, industrial and scientific advances of all great societies here and abroad have led to the development of a variety of indispensable modern pigments and colors that are worth knowing about and using.

I know that for me, the study of the painter’s craft has been very rewarding and enlightening – creating a palette gleaned from the study of ancient materials and the testing of new synthetic materials has had a profound effect on my understanding of both oil and watercolor painting. It is my belief that creativity and freedom of artistic expression should be encouraged, but not at the expense of technical expertise. An understanding of the materials and techniques of the painters craft can only increase the intellectual freedom to judge what is and what is not suitable to their own art.

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