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Monday, July 8, 2013


Believe it or not, there are actually people today who collect paint.

Artists are often referred to as "painters" almost as if the two words were synonymous. I suppose the reverse is true as well. Of course, anyone giving the matter a moment's thought would realize the error in such thinking. For artists (those who paint, at least) hardly any more thought is given to their paint medium than to the definition of painter. Few artists move interchangeably from one painting medium to another, and fewer still mix various media today ("mix" as in using them separately in a given work of art). Even today, with three major painting media widely available to artists (oils, acrylics, and watercolors), very often the assumption is among laymen that, unless it's on paper, it's an oil painting. In fact, it takes the practiced eye of an artist to discern the difference between oils and acrylics once the paint tubes disappear. Moreover, given the versatility of acrylic paints today, depending upon how they are used, the same ambiguity exists with watercolors. In fact, I've long insisted acrylics make better watercolors than watercolors. They're longer lasting, cheaper, and maybe even more forgiving of painting errors.
What might van Gogh have done with acrylics? Marti Green suggests a possibility.
Maybe she should go to work on the Last Supper.
If few artist and art appreciators give much thought to the paint employed today, still fewer give any thought to the long, winding, developmental history of paint in general. In the back of our minds we recall that prehistoric cave men 20,000 years ago used some form of the substance to create their art but give little thought to just what ingredients may have made up such paint. For the record, all paint having any degree of permanence must contain three elements, pigment (or dyes), a binder, and some type of solvent. Pigments come from three major sources, the earth (hence the artists' term, "earth tones") plant life, and today, various chemical compounds. Binders are usually associated with vegetable gums (including linseed oil, gum Arabic, etc.) or again, chemical compounds as in acrylics. All solvents were originally water (to effect the thickness or "wetness" of the paint). But with the advent of oils (as Leonardo so memorably demonstrated in painting his Last Supper) various non-aqueous distillations were needed (turpentine, for instance). The major requirement for a solvent is that it be plentiful, relatively fast drying, thin, and not have a detrimental effect on the other paint ingredients, especially their color or longevity.
Egyptian painting, Dendera temple complex, approximately 2,000 years old.
Paint has always had two major purposes--to protect and to decorate. Walls with painted images have come to light in Dendera, Egypt, that are 2,000 years old (above). The Roman writer and philosopher, Pliny the Elder, speaks in awe of painted ceilings (probably frescoes) from the same era in Ardea, Italy (a small, ancient community just south of Rome). Besides paint (tempera, today) on wet plaster (the binder), up until the Renaissance, portable painting meant pigments bound with egg yolk using tiny amounts of water as the solvent. The technique was tedious, time consuming, and temperamental. Errors were difficult, if not impossible, to correct. Oil painting, though involving a whole new chemistry, was a vast improvement. Still, artists (or, more often, their apprentices) had to find and grind their pigments, which, for colors such as blue, were quite rare and costly (ultramarine and lapis-lazuli). Gold leaf was similarly popular but costly, fading in favor with the coming of Renaissance naturalism.
With Jackson Pollock, artists began buying
their paint in cans not tubes.
Only with the advent of the Industrial Revolution during the early 1800s, did paint become relatively inexpensive. Pigments were ground using steam power; science began to understand paint chemistry; artists' paints appeared in tubes; and artists responded by using them in quantities, and with a freedom of expression, unimaginable in previous centuries. Impressionism would likely never have evolved without such economies of scale and portability. A couple generations later, acrylic polymer paints, first widely used by Jackson Pollack and friends, unleashed a similar revolution in Abstract Expressionism. A generation after that, paint became widely available in spray cans, which prompted a similar artistic freedom as demonstrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat and friends in the subways of New York City. Today, yet another generation of painters uses a digital paint made of glowing, electronic pixels having neither binder nor solvent, ushering in yet another wave of uniquely personal creative expression that has, in fact, given birth to a whole new definition of paint.

Gravestone, Jean-Michel Basquiat. The line between art and vandalism grew thin.

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