• Michael Skalka

A Matter of Trust


We are faced with issues of trust in all areas of our lives. Art materials are no different. We trust that when it says Organic Lettuce, it is actually grown absent of pesticides. On a more serious level, when we fly on an aircraft, we trust that the parts used in regular maintenance are certified and held to various manufacturing standards, some of which are outlined by the American Society of Testing and Materials, International. (ASTM) This same standards making body has a subcommittee on artists’ materials. Several Syntax subscribers are participants along with me in guiding art material manufacturers in creating standards for quality art products as well as health and safety guidelines for labeling.


On the issue of trust, artists have to exercise a level of trust regarding the ingredients a manufacturer selects to make art materials. One safeguard does exist that assures some level of quality. The chemistry of materials must function properly in the formulation of products. A paint works because the binder is compatible and performs well with the pigment and other additives required. Change a binder or pigment to a cheaper or inappropriate substitute and the paint may fail to work as expected. Many manufacturers invest in providing quality assurance testing to monitor changes in products.


Since art material manufacturers are low volume purchasers of pigment, they do not dictate detailed specifications on colorants to assure that from batch to batch, the color does not deviate. So, they must test the pigment against a previous purchase to make sure the color has not strayed. No artists wishes to open a new tube of a color they have been using repeatedly and be surprised that it does not match the previous tube.

Binders share the same outcome. Oil and acrylic binders are carefully selected to assure they remain in harmony with the formulation a paint maker has painstakingly perfected. In the acrylic realm, the choices of polymers are vast and perplexing. Knowledge, experience and guidance by the raw materials manufacturer will assure that the products work as expected.


Shortcuts can be taken. Remembering that polymers, drying oils, and pigments are not produced exclusively for the art materials trade, a manufacturer can “cut corners” and purchase less expensive or potentially inappropriate materials made for commercial purposes that were not intended for the same purpose and longevity that art materials must strive to maintain.


But again, the safeguard is that a shortcut or cheaper raw material is likely to be detected by consumers. Art materials manufacturers live by their reputations. Releasing untested, cheapened or adulterated products have a tendency of being discovered by artists. Artists also communicate with each other in person, on message boards and in art materials/techniques forums. An old saying goes, you can spend 100 year building a reputation and ruin it in 1 day. In a few cases, a company never recovers from the stigma of being “the company” that produced terrible paints. The stigma does not go away.


In my experience participating in ASTM work, I have come to understand how hard manufacturers strive to do the right thing and make art material that perform well. The companies that do not know or care about participating in ASTM or consider incorporating the standards our subcommittee oversees have a completely different mindset and business strategy. In my opinion, I find that manufacturers that participate or agree with what our subcommittee is doing, even if they do not send members to meetings, are producing fairly sound and reasonable products for consumers. As a consumer, I shy away from brands that have little to no website presence, name recognition, products that do not indicate permanence of pigments used, have little technical support or do not label their products in accord with ASTM and federal labeling laws (ASTM D4236) that are required for the sale of art materials in the United States. Use of odd, little known brands with a healthy degree of caution, because…


“It's a matter of trust You can't go the distance With too much resistance”

(A Matter of Trust, 1986, Billy Joel)


The Syntax of Color


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