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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Henry Levison: A Debt of Gratitude

Depending on a person’s age, the art materials manufacturer, Permanent Pigments, may or may not be recognized. Even more senior artists will not know all the “moving parts” related to the history of Permanent Pigments.

The story begins in 1933 when Henry Levison created a company to make oil paints for artists. The official history found on several website glosses over Levison’s contributions to the art materials industry and skips directly to 1955-56 when Henry introduced the first acrylic primer to the art world.

Debate is ongoing as to who first came up with acrylic paint for artists. Some historians cite The Politec Company and the artists Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros using acrylic paint for murals. The Politec Company no longer appears to exist and a search for it displays a company founded in 1967 that makes precision instruments for manufacturing along with other industrial aids.

Levison had been making oil paints for about 2 decades before introducing the world to his idea of “Liquid – Texture” or Liquitex for short. Unfortunately, the advent of Liquitex obscures Henry’s deep legacy to the art materials world.

Deep within the layers of advertising literature and samples from the Art Materials Research and Study Center Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, some of Henry Levison’s creative vision is revealed.

Henry made a typical set oil paints, but he was one of the first to specify names and index numbers of the pigments used to make his oil paints. He also created a line of colors called “Modular.” These paints were crafted to match Munsell hue, value and chroma measurements. I suspect these colors has some instructional purpose.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Levison partnered with the artist Fredrick Taubes to make mediums. Taubes specified the manufacture of a variety of Old Master types of mediums, many containing copal resin. Taubes was a ferocious critic of modern art in the 1950s. His essays appeared regularly in American Artist Magazine. He took a vicious “no prisoners” approach to anyone who practiced making art in the style of abstract expressionism.

The mystery name “Dana” was assigned to a line of oil paints Levison manufactured. I believe this line of paint was made in the mid to late 1970s. The tubes were 1.5 x 6.25 inches, providing ample paint for artists doing large scale work. Levison was still making paints in Cincinnati, OH when Dana was in production. I cannot find a definitive date when Levison stopped making mediums with Taubes name attached to them. However, it is ironic given his association with Taubes that Levison may have anticipated the needs of artists painting large abstract work by creating tubes of oil colors that held such large quantities of paint.

In its heyday, Permanent Pigments sold powder pigments, mediums, rabbit skin glue, casein, watercolor and of course, oil paints. However, all of that changed with Henry’s work on creating acrylic primer in 1955 with advertising first appearing in May 1957 in American Artist Magazine.

The introduction of Liquitex primer and acrylic tube paints about a year later, elevated Levison’s company’s visibility to a much higher level than it achieved prior to the late 1950s. The public appeared to crave this new mysterious “plastic paint. Permanent Pigments grew. The evolution can be charted on the tubes of Liquitex that were produced over several decades.

The earliest Liquitex colors were still made in Cincinnati, but with the acquisition of Permanent Pigments by Binney and Smith (makers of Crayola Crayons) in 1964, production moved to Winfield, Kansas. This acquisition expanded the inventory of art materials made by Binney and Smith. However, a shift in ownership would not end there. In 1984, Hallmark Cards acquired Binney and Smith along with the Liquitex brand. The Liquitex labels citing the place of origin reflected the corporate change and the label shifted being made in Easton, Pennsylvania.

This was not the final change in Liquitex’s ownership. In 2000, Colart, the company that marketed Winsor and Newton purchased Liquitex from Hallmark and moved the operation to the United Kingdom. However, this would not be the final stop in the Liquitex journey. Colart is a company under the umbrella of another firm called The Beckers Group. Beckers is a company based in Sweden that makes industrial coatings. Beckers also owns Lefranc and Bourgeois, a well-known, old French art materials manufacturer. Finally, we are nearly done with tracing the geographic moves of Liquitex. When Winsor and Newton closed the plant at Harrow and Wealdstone in the UK, the entire operation of Winsor and Newton moved to LeMans, France.

That is what you will find on a recently made tube of Liquitex. Every shift in ownership has a story to convey about the trials and tribulations of buying a well-known brand. However, you likely don’t have the time to read the detailed history, but it reveals the convoluted roller-coaster ride of corporate acquisitions. Many brands have been ruined or blunted by corporate takeovers. Fortunately, Liquitex has survived, mostly intact.

The history nobody has documented online in describing Permanent Pigments, the original parent of Liquitex is Henry Levison’s laser focus dedication to making quality products. He cited and followed the names of manufacturing standards created extremely early on in the history of paint making.

He was a pioneer in putting a complete list of ingredients on his tubes of colors, including additives. He built his own light testing machine as well as a spectrophotometer. The instrument has nearly every electronic device on it, with the exception of vacuum tubes. The light testing machine Levison made was the size of a telephone booth. In his later years, Levison was the chairman of ASTM D01.57, Artists’ Materials, the same subcommittee that I serve as chairman currently. He also was an organizing member of the National Art Materials Trade Association, a group dedicated to promoting the sale of art materials to distributors and retailers of art materials.

History repeats itself. Our ASTM subcommittee is organizing a version of the original light fast test that Henry Levison engineered in the 1980s. Henry created a large number of thin film oil paint samples on aluminum blanks and had them tested to assure the colors did not fade or if they did, the appropriate ASTM light fastness rating would be reported and shared with artists purchasing paints. The results of the testing were published in the standard made for manufacturers to use in selecting pigments that would be trustworthy.

However, modern changes to pigment formulations and additives are prompting our ASTM subcommittee to reexamine pigments to assure that they are stable and do not fade. While the earth colors are fine, our concern is for a number of synthetic organic colors. The tend to be the pigments most likely to reveal instability in some cases.

We are not conducting a test of a wide range of pigments as Levison did. We are only selecting around 8 pigments and are concentrating on assuring that the test method to determining light fastness works properly. We are including a few pigments in the test that we know will fade, such as natural alizarin crimson. Once we can prove the test method functions, we will submit the test steps in written form to ASTM and they will publish a revision of the standard art materials manufacturers have used to conduct light fastness testing of pigments. It will be up to individual manufacturers to determine what pigments to test in their own quality control laboratories. Our ASTM subcommittee wants to assure the test works properly. It will be up to manufacturers to pick their own preferred brands of pigments and apply the test method to those colorants.

So as first indicated, we all owe a huge debt of gratitude for pioneers like Henry Levison who worked hard to make art materials the best way he could. Many other paint makers shadow the same manufacturing philosophy that Henry created, even though they might not know that he originated many of the principles and methods we take for granted today.

The Syntax of Color

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