Monday, August 9, 2010

Why Make Your Own Paint?

Artists throughout time have included paintmaking among the many skills of their craft. Sadly, modern artists are largely unfamiliar with the process. There are still good reasons to consider making paint for yourself. How far you want to go in the paintmaking process is up to you. You don't have to make everything from scratch. You will still see most of the benefits by mulling commercial pigments as well.

Making your own paint encourages an intimate knowledge of each material, a choice of what goes into them, and permits their qualities to be altered in any way you see fit. This is a skill that the Old Masters used to get the most out of their abilities.

Think of cooking as an analogy. Most of us have bought or consumed prepackaged food in some way or another. Food prepared this way is predictable and convenient. Would top chefs want to use canned ingredients from the supermarket? Or would they insist on searching out the best ingredients, making the dishes from scratch?

Modern paints are more like prepackaged food. Like the food, artists are forced to accept the recipe the manufacturer has chosen for them. The art market is very small in scale compared to wider industrial uses of paint such as automobiles and plastics. Modern artists use what they are given, not necessarily what is ideal.

There are other benefits. Homemade paint is more likely to have purer color. Manufacturers add fillers to cut the amount of pigment in a given volume of paint, increasing profits. Usually only high end or boutique paints come close to the pigment loads of paint made by the artist's hand. These paints tend to be much more expensive. In this way, making your own paint can represent significant financial savings.

How we experience color in a painting is a consequence of the way it interacts with light. Light is altered as it reflects through the layers of paint on canvas and returns to our eyes. Modern pigments are ground to a uniform, extremely fine consistency, and are chemically very pure. I find the intensity of these paints can be overbearing if the artist doesn't make an effort to tame them. Hand ground pigments will be far more varied in their shapes and sizes of particles. These will refract (bend) the light waves passing through them in a complex fashion. The end result is more naturalistic, and these colors can be used in their more pure form, without becoming garish.

The consistency and handling qualities of paint is known as rheology. Oil paint falls into two categories: long (loose, stringy) and short (thick, buttery). Hand made paints vary in character but tend to be long. Paint would have felt this way 500 years ago. Modern paint is usually very short. It is easy to adjust the rheology of paint while you are making it. Modern tubed paint can only be altered by adding mediums. There is no evidence older artists used that much medium, and it is easily overused.

The downside of all of this is that all of this will take a great degree of patience and work. Smashing up rocks and grinding pigments is always going to be time consuming. Some historic pigments are highly toxic. It will take a bit of time to become comfortable making paint, and will require additional skill. The final quality of the product will also rest on your shoulders. Bad raw materials will produce bad results. Even if it seems daunting, I would encourage all artists to give it a try.

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