Sunday, March 25, 2018

The colormen

From Colors by V. Finlay:
Part of the issue was that he -and his teachers, and his teachers' teachers-had rarely had to mix paint from basic materials. He had never had to grind a rock, or powder a root, or hum a twig, or crush a dried insect‘ Nor, more importantly, had he observed the chemical reactions involved in paint-making and seen how colors changed over the years. By his time, and in stark contrast with Cennino's pre-paintbox world, almost all artists’ supplies were made and sold by professionals called colormen. Hunt was particularly passionate on the day he spoke-or at least the day he prepared his speech-because his own colorman had just sent him a bad batch of adulterated pigments, which had ruined one of his paintings. 

The solution was not about doing everything oneself, he assured his listeners. Holman Hunt was the first to admit 'that some artists-like Leonardo da Vinci, whose patrons sometimes despaired that he would ever actually start the painting, he was kept so busy distilling and mixing-spent far too long on the preparation stages. After all, even the old-timers sometimes delegated the excavations at Pompeii had unearthed paint pots in a workshop waiting for the artist to collect them, and Cennino himself had bought his vermilion ready made. 

And the solution was also not to get rid of the colorrnen. Some were excellent, Holman Hunt said-recounting legendary stories of a pharmacist in Holland who could make vermilion that was “three times brighter” than anyone else’s, and of Michelangelo’s contemporary Antonio da Coreggio, who was famously helped to prepare oils and varnishes by a chemist whose portrait, in gratitude, “still exists in Dresden.” But what was urgently needed, he said, was for artists to spend time learning the basics of their trade, so that when they collaborated with colormen they would know what they were talking about." 

Colormen first appeared in the mid-seventeenth century, preparing canvases, supplying pigments and making brushes. In France some of them were originally luxury goods grocers, selling exotica like chocolate and vanilla alongside the cochineal, but most of them quickly turned to full-time art supplying. The arrival of these professionals on the art scene was a sign-as Cennino’s book was a much earlier sign -of how the act of painting was mowing from a craft profession to an art one. For “craftspeople” the ability to manage one’s materials was all important; for “artists” the dirty jobs of mixing and grinding were simply time-consuming obstacles to the main business of creation. There were of course enough scare stories of Charlatans adulterating colors to keep some artists mixing their own for several centuries. But slowly and irrevocably artists began to push their porphyry pestles and mortars to the backs of their workshops, while professional colormen (or rather, in some cases, the horses of professional colormen) did the grinding. 

As well as the alienation of artists, putting paint-making into the hands of a few commercial dealers had another radical effect on the art world: technical innovation. When Cennino wrote his Handbook, artists were going through the all-important transition period between using tempera (egg) and oils (linseed or' walnut or poppy were popular) as binders. Later Giorgio Vasari would ascribe this invention to Johannes and Hubert Van Eyck. Certainly the Flemish brothers’ brilliantly translucent Efteenth-century oil paintings were the new medium’s greatest early advertiser, but oils had been used for many years before that. In the late 13003 Cennino was already using oils to paint the top layer on a picture of a velvet gown, for example,8 and even in the sixth century a medical writer called Aetius was mentioning how artists used a “drying oil," which was probably linseed.9 However, since the eighteenth century, inventions and innovations have been coming in so quickly it is not surprising that some artists have been bewildered. It is not just the hundreds of new paints but also the mediums-pigments can now be suspended in acrylics, fast-drying alkyds and .a whole range of gums and exotic oils‘°---and even the packaging of paints which have changed. 

One discovery that changed the art world was made by a young man called William Reeves in the late eighteenth century. He was a workman employed by a colorman called Middleton. but he spent some of his spare time doing experiments of his own. Up until then watercolors which are basically pigments mixed with water-soluble gum-had been sold in dry lumps that had to be grated. But Reeves found that honey mixed with gum arabic would not only stop the cakes from drying out, but also allow them to be molded into regular shapes. His brother, who was a metalworker, made the molds, and in 1766 Reeves & Son opened near St Paul’s, supplying the army and the East India Company with the first watercolor paintboxes. It would take the collaboration of artist Henry Newton with chemist William Winsor in 1832 before anyone would think to add glycerine-meaning that watercolors no longer had to be rubbed and could be used straight from the pan. Suddenly it was easy-in terms of materials at least to become an artist, and many enthusiastic amateurs followed Queen Victoria’s lead in ordering the new paintboxes and using them out of doors to sketch landscapes. Oil painting alfresco was naturally the next big change. For centuries, artists had stored their paints in pigs’ bladders. It was a painstaking process: they, or their apprentices, would carefully cut the thin skin into squares. Then they would spoon a nugget of wet tpaint onto each square, and tie up the little parcels at the top with string. When they wanted to paint, they would pierce the skin with a tack, squeeze the color onto their palette and then mend the puncture.  It was messy especially when the bladders burst, but it was also wasteful as the paint would dry out quickly. Then in 1841 a fashionable American portrait painter called John Goffe Rand devised the first collapsible tube-which he made of tin and sealed with pliers. After he had improved it the following year and patented it, artists in both Europe and America really began to appreciate the wonder of the portable paintbox. Jean Renoir once told his son that without oil paints in tubes: “There would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro: nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.” Impressionism, after all, was a movement that depended on recording nature in nature. Without being able to use colors outside it would have been hard for an artist like Monet to record the impressions that the movements of the light had made on him, and so create his atmospheric effects. 

One of the most popular colormen in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century was Julien Tanguy affectionately nicknamed Pére.” This jovial dealer and art supplier was an ex convict who had once served time on a prison ship for subversion” a biographical detail that no doubt endeared him to some of the Post-Impressionists, who were his main customers. Paul Cézanne bought from him, as did Emile Bernard, who described going to Tanguy’s shop at 11 rue Clauzel as being like “visiting a museum,” Another famous (though impecunious) customer, Vincent van Gogh, painted three portraits of Pete Tanguy. The first, from 1886, is very brown-the subject looking rather like a workman, with just a touch of red on his lips and a spot of green on his apron.“ Then, in the spring of 1887, van Gogh changed his palette-experimenting with color oppositions of red against green, orange against blue-and his work was never the same again. The other two portraits of Tanguy (dated 1887 and 1888) are a raucous celebration of the dealer’s paint products. They show him standing in front of Japanese prints, kabuki actors competing on the walls with soft-focus cherrytree landscapes. Suddenly blues are striped with yellows, and on top of Tanguy’s hat is Mount Fuji, giving him the conical look of a rice farmer, rather than the quizzical look ofa French merchant. Both paintings were part of what Van Gogh called his “gymnastics" of experimenting with how to put Intense colors rather than gray harmonies in his paintings.

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