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Art Materials Essays: SyntaxofColor  2005-2006

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The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No. 1
Originally Issued: 02-23-05 (Edited 2016)

The Issue of Black:


Interesting that we should start with the color that Webster's Dictionary describes as “the achromatic color of least lightness.”  Straight from the tube, we might agree that black is simply... black. From a technical standpoint it has no color but it is a working color from an artist's point of view. We know that artists use black pigment and it has always been readily available and documented in countless works of art.  However, on the scale of an artist’s interest, black's score is very low.  Despite the lack of use by contemporary painters, its intrigue is derived from the material used to make the colorant and the undertone it displays. 

The raw materials for making black in the past could be from soot collected from burning lamp fuel.  It could come from carbonizing common animal bones or exotic ivory.  It could be derived from vines or twigs of a specific botanical origin, or could be made from ordinary vegetal sources like fruit pits or nuts.  

Drawing of a furnace that carbonizes materials that can be used for black pigments


The more fascinating and less common historical sources of black come from two classes of materials.  Some are derived from raw or processed natural substances like cork, coffee beans, paper and some earth colors calcined to transform them into black pigment.  Second, a very odd source of blacks come from well know and used manufactured colors, carbonized like other natural materials.  These raw materials for black have come from madder root that was commonly used for alizarin crimson red and from Prussian blue, a deep very powerful pigment.

Each black has a distinct undertone that betrays a warm or cool bias.  Some are cool blue-blacks, others display a red or warm brown color bias.  So it is not surprising that pigments like Alizarin and Prussian Blue provide distinct undertones.  Paint makers marketed blacks with mixtures of blue to enhance the cool characteristics of the carbonized raw materials.  In the past, paint makers sold a number of black colors as well as a full range of dark earth pigments.  Styles and tastes changed so black colors fell in and out of favor.   

Today, few artists who fervently emulate an Impressionistic style will admit to owning a tube of any kind of black let alone applying it on a painting.   The notion that black deadens a painting can be easily proven by using it over abundantly or as the principal means of altering a color’s lightness or intensity.  Other color mixing strategies achieve desired results with greater control and accuracy without compromising the chroma of a pigment mixture.  Low chroma darks with a warm or cool bias are mixed as needed to create interesting black paint.  Artists learn what combination of colors creates the best “black” for them without using a traditional single pigment black.   

However, some artists embrace black as a stand-alone color, not as a means of adjusting the value of a chromatic pigment.  The notion of black having multiple roles as a stand-alone color and as a colorant to augment another color is gaining some popularity.  A few new blacks have entered the market that redefine its use on the palette.  If used judiciously, they have unique working properties that do not overwhelm other colors to enhance and extend an artist’s vocabulary.  Black can be respected not feared or hated if handled properly. 

Until the next opportunity to share with you comes again, I hope you have a great painting experience. 

The Syntax of Color 

The Issue of Black

What is a Buddle?


What is a buddle and why isn’t this a term that nearly every painter knows?


As you may have guessed, this is a trick question.  A buddle is not a household term to painters of today, but if you were a pigment refiner or manufacturer in the nineteenth century, you would have certainly relied on your buddle to start the process of refining earth pigments.  A buddle is where the rough unprocessed pigment, straight from the ground, is placed in the first phase of making a usable colorant.  A buddle is a large round tank that contains an agitator.  Raw pigment and water are poured in the buddle and mixed to keep the particles in suspension.  A flow of water into the buddle makes the tank overflow. 

The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No. 2
Originally Issued: 03-02-05 (Edited 2016)

Water and mined earth material is poured into the tank on the far lef that overflows into the next tank.  Lighter particles are carried further and settle into the tanks to the right.

The heavy particles sink to the bottom of the tank while the small, light particles are purposefully directed to overflow into another tank. This process is repeated several more times with linked tanks that receive the overflow of finer pigment particles as lighter granules are carried off into settling tanks further down the line.  Once the pigments settle, the water is drained from the tanks and the pigment is removed and dried.  Coarser pigments in the first few tanks are darker than those found in tanks further down the chain of settling tanks.  The pigments are graded by color.  Very coarse pigment that settles in the buddle may be ground to decrease the particle size and run through the water separating process again.


So many earth color mines have been exhausted and the supply of pigments cannot meet the large-scale needs of industrial processors.  The large pigment manufacturers have turned to synthetic iron oxides as a consistent and practically inexhaustible source of earth colors.  They are consistent in particle size and in many cases have higher tinting strength than their natural pigment cousins.


Arguments arise as to which pigments are better, natural earth colors or synthetics.  This discussion can be approached from several viewpoints.  Many artists lament that the rich, vibrant earth colors they bought in the past are gone, replaced by dull, homogenous, uninteresting ones.  That may be true in some respects, but a moot point since the particularly interesting shade of ochre they used for years has vanished from the market place.  The earth yields unique veins of colored materials as elements, heat, and time, work their magic.  Some paint makers took advantage of these unique colors and produced paint for as long as the mines would provide a consistent, replicable product.  Regional names for colors abounded in the nineteenth century.  (That’s a topic for another day.)  Today synthetics and a number of natural earth colors are available.  Careful selection of synthetic earths will providing a variety of rich and satisfying hues.  Some are hydrated to provide translucency.  Others have strong color and opacity.  A few natural earths are still available from a few major and some smaller companies that are comfortable with being able to purchase small amounts of pigment.  It comes down to a matter of personal taste and painting style in selecting earth colors.


The Syntax of Color

What is a Buddle?

The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No. 3
Originally Issued: 03-09-05 (Edited 2016)

Bodies in the Cellar or The Old and Forgotten:


Only a handful of theatre enthusiasts would know the name Joseph Kesselring.  However, many would recognize one of his most famous plays, “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  His original title was “Bodies in the Cellar.” and perhaps that is the theme of this Grammar of Color.  


So many colors and names of pigments have disappeared.  A few names are barely recognizable.  In this case, the pigment Scheeles Green, is one of those.  However, its chemical relative, Emerald Green, is still used as a pigment name 

today.  In fact, a few manufacturers still make a color that closely resembles the original Emerald Green, but contains very different materials.


Scheeles Green is a copper arsenite compound.  It was discovered by the Swedish chemist, Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1778.  Scheele was a scientist of extraordinary talent.  Unfortunately, his was a victim of bad luck and timing.  Eight years earlier in 1770, Scheele had discovered “fire-air,” the gas we know as oxygen.  Unfortunate for Scheele, Joseph Priestley made the same discovery two years later in 1774, but managed to publish his findings in 1776 and beat Scheele to claim the accolades.  Scheele’s book on oxygen was distributed in 1777.


Several decades later, in an attempt to improve on Scheeles green, a copper acetoarcenite green was developed between 1800 and 1814 and was called Emerald Green as well as a host of other names. Wilhelm Sattler began manufacturing the pigment in large quantities in his German colorworks.  The pigment had a hard time maintaining a solid identity.  Scheeles Green had been known as Paris Green, Veronese Green, Mineral Green and Swedish Green.  Emerald Green was called Mitis, as well as Paris and Veronese Green.  Both their chemistry and name became intertwined and confused.  Sattler’s mass production of aceto-arsenite of copper, was bestowed the name Schweinfurth Green, after the location of his color production plant.  Sattler was not the only master of tortuous materials naming.  During his life, Scheele had a penchant for long, convoluted names.  Besides oxygen, Scheele also discovered chlorine.  However, he referred to it as “dephlogisticated marine acid.”  It is speculated that the complicated and ever changing name of Emerald Green was a marketing ploy to hide the fact that it contained highly toxic materials.


Emerald green can best be described as akin to permanent green light, with a higher chroma.  It is a bright intense green that was not accustomed to friendly behavior and co-habitation with other pigments.  It was reported to react with cadmium colors and rendered them black by a sulfur-related chemical reaction between the two pigments.  A majority of lake pigments fared poorly with Emerald Green as well.  On top of that, the copper arsenic compound is highly poisonous to humans and animals alike.


A modified version of the color was a popular insecticide for fruits.  While one sees no indication of its use today in farming, we are reminded of copper-based preservatives in the distinct color of treated lumber used in decks and other outdoor wood construction.  The biological barrier of aceto-arsenite of copper was well known in the nineteenth century as well as today. 


Emerald Green took the color and designer’s world by storm.  Wallpaper and paints contained Emerald Green as a colorant.  It was noted that wallpaper, susceptible to insect infestation because both the paper and the paste are desired by insects, remained untouched in cases where Emerald Green was employed.


Returning now to Carl Scheele; he must have been a dare-devil, a mother’s nightmare-child who had to be watched so that he would not have the opportunity to blow up the family home.  His experiments with dangerous substances continued throughout his life.  Scheele worked with arsenic, cyanide and hydrogen cyanide in many experiments.  With safety issues somewhat unknown or unheeded,  Scheele’s health deteriorated and he died in 1786 at 43 years old.  Sadly, only two days before his death he married the widow of his previous scientific collaborator so that she would inherit his business.


So the next time you come across Emerald Green, recall the “Bodies in the Cellar.”  It is the complex, hidden story of people, stories behind stories, the commercial manufacturing industry and a quest for scientific discovery.  Lots of stories, so little time to tell them. 


Now back to reading “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  Thank you, Miss Brewster, I do think I will pass on your lovely offer for a glass of homemade elderberry wine.


The Syntax of Color

Bodies in the Cellar

The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No. 4
Originally Issued: 03-16-05 (Edited 2016)

Protect the Skin You’re In


Well, it’s not grammatically correct, but it is a poignant reminder that it is the only skin we have and we better care for it wisely.


Skin is the largest organ of the human body.  On average, humans have about 20 square feet of skin. Most of us like to think of our skin as a means of containing our inner organs and as a means of releasing materials from our bodies.  Natural oils, perspiration, embedded dirt and dead skin are what most think of when considering what skin expels.   Skin is a two-way street.  It also absorbs friendly and foreign material.  Since this is not meant to be an anatomy and physiology lesson, but one that focus on a particular substance, let’s get to the heart of the matter.

One of the great things that skin does is to regulate our temperature.  A vast array of blood vessels are found in the papillary dermis layer of the skin to provide nutrients to cells and to aid in temperature regulation.  


The purpose of this Syntax of Color is to examine how turpentine, a popular solvent used by artists, if not carefully managed, can cause bodily harm.


It has been documented that turpentine can be absorbed by the skin and enter the bloodstream.  Artists use turpentine to dilute oil paint and clean brushes.  It stands to reason that the mechanism in turpentine that causes oil to breakdown will also dissolve the natural oils in our skin.  With this weak barrier against harsh solvents gone, turpentine easily passes through the capillary-rich dermal layer and on into the bloodstream.


This Syntax of Color is focused on skin infiltration by turpentine, but turpentine can enter the body through respiration as well.  The “safe” or permissible amount in air and exposure limits is complex and a topic for another edition. 


A host of skin problems can be encountered by short and long-term exposure to turpentine.  Casual, short-term contact can result in irritation and redness.  Prolonged exposure may cause dermatitis.  Dermatitis is an inflammation of the skin that is red, swollen, and itches.


Long-term exposure may result in sensitization.  After the body has been exposed to turpentine for a prolonged time period, mechanisms are established that trigger a reaction with very little exposure.  Nearly all artists know stories about someone who has painted for a long time who complains that just a brief whiff of turpentine will cause them to have dermatitis.  That’s the essence of sensitization.  At that point, a sensitized artist needs to retool and eliminate the use of turpentine entirely.  Many artists have switched media to avoid all potential exposure to solvents.  How many watercolorists were once avid oil painters who previously used turpentine with reckless abandon?


Artists who wish to use turpentine may turn to ways of protecting exposed skin from coming in contact with the solvent.  Gloves are a simple solution.  Many people will march straight to a local hardware store and pick up a package of generic latex gloves and feel assured that they are protected from the harmful effects of turpentine contact with skin.  Unfortunately, it is not that simple.  The industrial hygiene industry produces a seemingly endless assortment of gloves.  Each has protective qualities for a targeted number of solvents, and for a limited amount of time.  


A typical latex glove is rated very poorly with regards to turpentine exposure.  It has only about 5 minutes worth of protection and overall it is unsuitable for use with turpentine.  The glove that is highly rated for use with turpentine is Nitrile.  Those who have a latex allergy commonly substitute this glove for natural latex.  However, a number of manufacturer’s test warn that Nitrile only has about 30 minutes of protection against turpentine.


For most artists, it would be foolish and expensive to suggest that they change gloves every thirty minutes during a painting session.  However, it would be prudent to recommend that artists change studio habits so that gloves are used when the greatest risk of exposure to turpentine is encountered, usually during cleanup time.  


When using turpentine to dilute paint, use a covered container so that the surface of the liquid is only exposed to the air when a brush needs to be dipped into the solvent.  Open coffee cans filled with turpentine will be the subject of a future Grammar.  The practice of using an open can of turpentine with a large exposed surface results in a high vapor concentration in a studio space.  This is a recipe for a health disaster as well as a fire hazard.  If this describes your studio, the use of gloves is a bit senseless since inhalation provides a incredible means of transporting the harmful components of turpentine into the body.


So, review your studio practices and eliminate open cans of solvent.  Select the proper glove for the solvent you are using.  Nitrile appears to provide limited time protection (about 30 minutes) against turpentine, as well as mineral spirits and VM&P Naptha.  Do not retain gloves over a long period of time.  If they have been exposed to solvents during an afternoon of painting, discard them at the end of the painting session.  Since Nitrile is rated for about 30 minutes of fairly heavy solvent exposure, you must change them within that time limit if you want the protection this glove provides.  Multiple reuse of gloves will fail to provide protection as the barrier created by the glove will be compromised as the glove is exposed to the harmful effects of the solvent.  Further, if you happen to be working with solvents and a glove tears, remove it and wash your hands.  Remember that a gloved hand gets hot and the pores are open and susceptible to infiltration.  Keeping a compromised glove on your hand just traps solvent in the glove and allows it to pass easily into your bloodstream.  


Search the internet for sources of boxed gloves.  Keep them wrapped until you are ready to use them and store them in a cool dark place.  Do not expose them to air and sunlight so that they have an opportunity to breakdown.


Remember that latex gloves are fine for keeping hand free of dirt and grime but are not suitable for use with solvents.  Barrier creams are fine for light protection of the skin and will help to loosen dirt when washing hands, but do not provide any protection against solvents.


Be vigilant in protecting your skin.  It is a pathway to introducing unwanted materials.  Safe practices now will help you have a long, productive and healthy painting career. 


The Syntax of Color


Protect the Skin You're In

The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No. 5
Originally Issued: 03-23-05 (Edited 2016)

The Priming Layer


The priming layer or ground a painting is placed upon has gotten a lot of attention in recent years.  Since the priming layer serves as a foundation for a work of art it deserves to have a critical role in the successful completion of a sound, integrated artwork.


I believe that most of you know the difference between traditional gesso and the materials we use today for priming.  However, for those who do not, gesso is the traditional burnt gypsum, (plaster of Paris) and animal hide glue ground that is applied to wood panels to create a painting surface.  It creates a wonderful coating that accepts paint well.  It is very brittle and hence, the need for a thick wooden support is mandatory.  Traditional gesso cannot be applied to a stretched canvas in the thickness needed to stop the penetration of oil paint.  (More on this later.)  Even a fairly thin layer would be susceptible to cracking and flaking.  

Today, tradition painters can still use gesso.  However, with the advent of acrylic paints, a modern primer has become established.  Acrylic dispersion primers that many refer to as acrylic gesso, have become the choice for many artists who prepare a suitable grounds for painting with oils and acrylics.  While some grate at the term “acrylic gesso,” it is not a problem if an artist realizes that they are only borrowing the name from the traditional gypsum and glue ground layer.


Acrylic dispersion primers are formulated to provide a surface that accepts paint, but provides protection for the support.  This is an important concept.  We know that when oil paint makes contact with a woven support like cotton or linen, the oil in the paint will oxidize the fiber and cause premature deterioration.  This is important since paint alone cannot provide the needed structural support to hold a painting together.


In addition, painters and manufacturers of grounds came to realize that acrylic dispersion grounds have qualities that allow material to move fairly freely through the surface, much more than anyone intended.  It was reported that when acrylic grounds were applied to hardboard, material leached from the hardboard, migrated through the ground and appeared as an overall discoloration.  Water soluble materials in the hardboard, dissolved by the water that makes up a sizable portion of any acrylic dispersion ground, pulled these materials out of the wood into the ground.  Realizing that grounds were a conduit for movement of material in either direction, the manufacturers and artists concluded that a sealing or sizing layer needed to be placed on hardboard, or any other support, to stop the potential for oil or products in the support from migrating.  This translated into a variety of sizing products and manufacturers suggesting two or more coats of primer.  


Acrylic dispersion grounds provide a surface that maintains good mechanical adhesion properties and protection of the support if used as directed.  Of course, an appropriate sizing layer gives added protection with a higher level of assurance that material will not migrate from the oil paint into the canvas support.


Some artist ask, why not just make acrylic gesso less porous?  Since mechanical adhesion of the initial layer of paint is important, a compromise is reached by providing artists with products that are absorbent within a wide range of painting styles.  This absorbency is manifest when artists notice that a freshly dried oil paints layer looks powdery, loosing nearly all of its gloss.  This dry surface is ideal for adhesion of subsequent paint layers.  However, if this powdery looking layer is the final one, an artist must decide the level of gloss desired and use a varnish that will saturate the mat appearance of the colors.  


Some oil painters use canvas prepared with oil grounds.  Traditionally, these are made of lead white and linseed oil applied to a rabbit skin glue prepared canvas.  Since it is known that all hide glues like the highly refined rabbit skin glue absorb and loose moisture from the air that promotes cracking, a number of moisture impervious sizes such as polyvinyl acetate may be substituted.  Alkyd grounds are also used by painters.  The preparation is the same as that used for oil grounds.  Alkyds provide a strong and moderately flexible alternative to white lead grounds.  They are also more environmentally friendly, since titanium white rather than lead is used as a colorant.


Today’s materials made by reputable art manufacturers provide an outstanding priming layer that is made with materials that provide excellent longevity.  Artists who succumb to using acrylic house paints should realize that these materials are not made for the intended purpose of providing good mechanical adhesion and protection of the support.  House paints are made from basic ingredients that have short-term life spans.


The debate will go on for some time as to which grounds provide the best working properties.  (Aside from students and artists clearly making works as practice exercises) When artists comment on primers, many say that any old cheap paint will do.  However, I reply that if you are selling your work (in some cases, for fairly substantial sums of money) from an aesthetic point of view,  don’t you want your image to sustain its appearance over time?  From an economic integrity viewpoint: Don’t you want to know that what you make will hold its value and not prematurely deteriorate?  From a purely practical view:  A well made support or poor one – how do you know before you start that this will not be one of your greatest paintings?  It would be ashamed to create a masterpiece on a substandard primed canvas.


The Syntax of Color


The Priming Layer

The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No.6
Originally Issued: 03-31-05 (Edited 2016)

Vermilionettes and Royal Reds


It is a humorous name for a group of colors.  Vermilionettes and Royal Reds makes me think of the name of a big band from the 1930s.  However, that is not the case.  Vermilionettes were a group of colors appearing at the beginning of the 20th century that served as substitutes for genuine vermillion.  Real vermilion, a combination of mercury and sulfur is found in a mineral called cinnabar.  As with any ore, much labor is expended on refining and isolating quality materials that will produce the desired color.  The crushed ore is subjected to the process of levigation to segregate particles of similar size and quality. The method of producing artificial vermilion provided a more uniform, consistent product than available from nature.  It also allowed large quantities to be manufactured.  Vermilion was a pigment know and used by Rembrandt.  It provided touches of rich orange-red color with high opacity.  It was an expensive color and was used frugally by Rembrandt.  

Vermilionettes did not completely replace natural vermilion in the early 20th century.  Art material manufacturers still supplied the pigment to artists well into the late part of the last century.  Most mainstream manufacturers do not carry the pigment currently, but a few small volume paint makers do grind genuine vermilion in limited quantities and at surprisingly breathtaking prices.


Vermilionettes and a companion group of colors called Royal Reds, were a group of pigments derived from a dye called eosine.  Eosine is a dye (a lake color) that is transparent but it mimicked the look and feel of true vermilion because in the manufacturing process, the eosine was precipitated on a base of orange lead.  Orange lead is heavy and opaque, combined with eosine dye, it would have given all the outward appearance of a artificial vermilion.  Different shades of Vermilionettes were made by combining barytes, orange lead, eosine and lead acetate.  The Royal Reds were formulated with the same materials with the exception of the barytes.  They seemed to have had many of the same working properties of vermilion.  Unfortunately, in producing colors in this manner, they did not loose much of their toxicity other than being mercury-free.


As you would expect, they were not lightfast and not recommended where they would be exposed to a harsh outdoor environment.  Like many other pigments of past generations, they are a reminder of the evolution of the color industry.


…So from high atop the ballroom of the Drake Hotel, in beautiful downtown,  Chicago, we continue now with our musical selections from this week’s guest orchestra, The Vermillionettes and the unique musical styling of the Royal Reds………   


The Syntax of Color


Vermilionettes and Royal Reds

The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No.7
Originally Issued: 04-06-05 (Edited 2016)



I heard a funny story told to me on the origin of lake pigments. A person who felt he was a leading expert on pigments, told a novice artist in a condescending air, when asking about lake pigments,  “Of course, you know that ‘lake’ means transparent.”  Well, that set the record straight!  (I thought some reference to a pond was coming.)  At first glance, the answer seems to follow logic and empirical knowledge.  Unfortunately, it distorts the true meaning and richness of the term “lake.”


Writers on art materials mention the word “lac” as the origin of the term “lake” in their discussions, a reference to the insect Laccifer lacca, that produces both the resin shellac and an organic, transparent, red colorant.  However, “lake” is properly associated with the Italian term for the foamy substance that appears on top of dyers’ vats called lacca.

When one thinks about it carefully, the concept of creating lake paints makes perfect sense. Dyes are the source of the colorant in lake pigments.  However, it becomes a physical conundrum to figure out how to take a colored liquid and turn it into a pigment.  If you evaporated the fluid part of the dye you are left with a fine powder, but not of the sort that can be combined properly with oil to create a usable paint.  The concept of laking introduces a substrate or base that precipitates and absorbs the dye, fixes the hue, provides bulk and some measure of covering power for the transparent colorant.


A number of substances were used to create lake colors in the past.  One of the most popular was aluminum hydrate.  Other materials, especially metal oxides, provide a range of suitable bases on which to cast transparent dyes.  Each material has a pronounced effect on the hue of the colorant used in the process.  Examples of the range of madder lakes can best be found in the fabric dyeing industry.  Madder can appear golden yellow, or red, or purple or rusty brown all by the selection of bases and the type of fiber selected to dye.


Lake colors have been a large part of range of paints available to the artist.  Lakes made up a sizable percentage of a colormaker’s  product line in the past and today are still some of the most indispensable colors.  Fortunately, many are now synthetically produced from stable, lightfast, organic colorants so the problem that most lake colors had with fading has been curtailed. In the past, many lakes were notorious for their fugitive behavior and artists knew to paint them thickly or live with the notion that they would change within a few years after being applied.  Today, artists should still examine the source of the lake colors they use to make certain that light-stable pigments are used.  Several pigments are not lightfast but are so popular that manufacturers use them as colorants despite their inherent instability.


Some of the most notable lake pigments derived from natural dye materials are Carmine, Madder Lake, Indian Yellow, Indigo, Brazil-Wood Lakes and Sap Green.  The invention of aniline dyes made of coal tar in 1856 by Perkins, provided a broad range of synthetic hues and some fascinating color names like Chloranisidine lake, Helopurpurine lake, Alizarine lakes as well as other red, scarlet, yellow, orange, maroon, blue, green, violet and brown lake colors.


Citizens of the middle to late 1800s saw a veritable explosion of color that transformed fashion, home furnishings and the arts.  Lake colors became a powerful engine of change in the modern world.  So many of the colors we use today are the offspring of lake colors that became established as fixtures on many artists’ palettes.  Each one of these colors has a story and perhaps we shall tell those tales someday.


The Syntax of Color



The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No.9
Originally Issued: 04-22-05 (Edited 2017)

Magni Nominis Umbra

Given what has happened in Rome in recent weeks, I though it would be appropriate to give this Grammar of Color a Latin title.  Magni Nominis Umbra, is translated as “ in the shadow of a great name.”  This fits so wonderfully with today’s theme and the events surrounding a recent trip to Chicago.  Grammar took a bit of a holiday last week to go to the Windy City.  Every year the art materials industry comes together for an annual meeting to educate its members, provide a showcase for sales, displaying products and to renew old relationships among members who span the world.  The organization that coordinates this annual meeting as well as year-round support of the industry is called the National Art Materials Trade Association. (NAMTA)  

If art materials manufacturers existed as a trade group a few thousand years ago, they would have gathered around fires and told stories of places where bright colored earths could be found and how to avoid being mauled by saber-toothed tigers when digging for red ochre.  Today, NAMTA meetings are not so grueling or rugged.  Most convention centers frown upon open campfires so the information exchange and bonding experiences usually takes place in a vendor’s booth or later in the evening around a flame of a candle in convention hotel’s bar.  Not quite the campfire setting, but you get the idea.


For those who love art materials, attending NAMTA is akin to dying and going to a heaven that is a giant art materials store covering several acres.  Rows and rows of vendors display fully stocked shelves and racks filled with products.  Items you have seen only in magazines or catalogues are proudly stacked and gleam under the glow of spotlights.  Literally, everything made for artists appears for several days under one roof.  The bad news is that none of these wonderful supplies are for sale.  The good is that none of these wonderful supplies are for sale.  I would not have enough shopping bags and suitcases available to haul away the mass of things that I would want to buy at a NAMTA show.


I think we take it for granted that when we go to an art materials store, that the shelves contain so many varieties of products to select.  All those art materials come from somewhere.  Dedicated chemists, managers, marketing managers, artists, and entrepreneurs create a team that delivers these products to market.  Companies with over 150 years of experience, some with 30 and others with only 5 all work hard to satisfy the creative drive of artists.  When talking to the many talented people in the art materials industry, one is amazed at the knowledge and experience that exists in the field.  Making paint and bringing it to market is hard work.  Products are carefully formulated based on the skills and experience of the manufacturer.  We take much of this for granted when we open a tube of paint, not knowing the effort involved in research, development, and testing that goes into the creation of each product offered to artists.  It is not only the vision of the artist, but the manufacturer as well, that creates a healthy marketplace.  


When we walk down the broad aisles of a NAMTA convention or the narrow aisles of our local art supply store, we tread unaware of the vast amount of creativity, ingenuity and willingness to bear the monetary risk to develop and market products.  Of course, manufacturers gain financially as one would expect in a free enterprise system.  We complain at the high cost of art materials all the time.  Unfortunately, raw materials, packaging and labor are costly.  Testing and labeling for safety standards adds to the price of each item.  However, we would be hard pressed to attempt to make a jar of acrylic gloss medium, fabricate a colored pencil, formulate ink or craft a beautiful sheet of 300 lb. cold pressed paper by ourselves.  Our time is better spent making art rather than making art materials.  So as we enjoy the wonderful tools and supplies remember Magni Nominis Umbra, we are “standing in the shadow of a great name” and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

The Syntax of Color

Magni Nominis Umbra

Greetings from New York



The business of tracking down art materials leads to some interesting places.  While on collection related business for work in New York, I made the rounds of some of the city’s large art materials suppliers in lower Manhattan to follow up on contacts made for gifts to our growing materials collection.  I consider myself fairly immune to being impressed by a number of art materials on display in stores, in light of working with our materials collection and my yearly visits to the National Art Materials Trade Association (NAMTA) meetings. However, I was overwhelmed by the volume of identical types of items that compete for shelf space in large New York art supply stores. 

The Syntax of Color 
Vol: 1 No.9
Originally Issued: 04-27-05 (Edited 2017)

While this is not an issue of great concern for artists outside of major urban centers where stores have far more limited quantities of products, it boggles the mind as to how a novice artist in New York can make an educated decision of what to buy with such an overwhelming number of choices. Not having the motivation or means to do a market survey of artists, one can only speculate as to the factors that influence the choices made when purchasing art materials.  A basic understanding of the function of a product is the initial factor when considering what to buy. This concept may seem perfunctory and naive, but it is amazing how often the wrong answer is given when a customer asks a store employee about the purpose of a product.  The customer is left uncertain as to what the product may do for them.  Price very likely comes in second in the consideration process and company brand may be a tertiary factor in the selection of products to buy.


The dilemma can be illustrated by picking any example.  An artist enters a store to buy a bottle of alkali refined linseed oil.  They may be confronted by no fewer than 6-8 brands.  They are all about the same number of ounces.  They are all light yellow.  They all have the same description and health and safety labels.  So, how does one choose?  This is the point where one might pause and read on thinking the next sentence will provide some magical secret, a divining rod of sorts to point to the right path.  Well, sorry to disappoint everyone, I am without a definitive answer to this question.  


My only suggestion is to use the tools at your disposal.  Ask questions.  Most major manufacturers have web sites, printed literature and well-educated technical assistance phone services to help you.  While some might say, “Why should I look to a manufacturer to guide me?” They only want to sell me the products they make.  Manufacturers can still be some of the best sources of general information about art materials.  I have found that the ones who maintain good web sites have technical help lines and high-quality product/educational literature, also demonstrate a commitment to artists to see that they have the best information possible to make responsible decisions about how to construct works of art.  The ultimate responsibility falls to you as the artist to sort through all of the information you receive and come up with an answer to help you decide what to buy.  Ask questions of a generic nature.  If you don’t understand the nature of a product such as an alkali refined linseed oil, do enough reading and research until you are satisfied that you have a grasp of the subject matter.  Search the Internet for both commercial and academic web sites that explain the nature of materials.  


Come to a supply store equipped with knowledge.  The last resort is to ask the sales people at your supplier.  Unless you know them to be knowledgeable and have some long-term commitment to art, they just might have been selling tee shirts at a local mall a few short weeks ago before landing the job they currently have trying to tell you about the difference between alkali refined linseed oil and cold-pressed linseed oil.  With retail jobs, the pay is low and the turnover is high.  This is a bad combination for obtaining a sales force with encyclopedic knowledge of the products sold.  


I can say that some help is on the way.  NAMTA is providing educational CDs to its retail members so that store employees can obtain some training in the fundamentals of art supplies.  It may take a while to be instituted on a wide scale, but the move to educate the sales force is being attempted in earnest.


So I conclude by describing the scene in a Manhattan art supply store.  I am standing agog in the midst of no fewer than 30 primers; brands I have rarely seen, new products, items that look like they predate the opening of the store itself and materials that look so unappealing that I would not dream of putting them on a painting.  A perky, young sales clerk comes by and asks if I need any help.  “Do you have any oil based primers?” I ask.  “What size?”  I froze.  Knowing that I would have to lug this thing across miles of Manhattan sidewalks, I decided to pass on this purchase and “try” to find it at my ill stocked, pathetic local art supply store.


From somewhere in SOHO, or perhaps it’s NOHO….

The Syntax of Color

Greetings from New York
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