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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Greetings from New York

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

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.

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. Oh, No...

The Syntax of Color

Original Grammar of Color Essay

Vol: 1 No.9 (Published 04-27-05)

(Edited 2017)

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