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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

Painting and Music

It is likely that many of you have a wide number of art forms that you appreciate. My interests in music, especially technical, music theory is an ongoing passion. Music is intertwined with periods in my life. Songs remind me of the past and where I was and what I was doing and thinking in those time periods. Like many of you, I also enjoy listening to music when I am painting. I think it makes the paint flow a bit better, I think?

Completed watching the Disney+ documentary, “The Beatles: Get Back.” It satisfied my craving for both nostalgia and music theory. Seeing the Beatles work out the melody and chords to songs appears to me as akin to watching an artist do a live painting demo. We get to see both the process and the execution along with some of the thinking that goes into the steps of putting together a work of art. The Beatles and artists making a work of art take successive “stabs” at defining and then refining. Watching the documentary, we get to be part of the audience that is allowed to see what is taking place in the “kitchen” before the “meal” is brought out to enjoy. Most of the time we don’t know how the final product is made but we savor it nonetheless.

In January 1969, when “Get Back” was filmed, our world was 6 months away from landing the first people to walk upon the moon. Political and social turmoil swirled around us globally. Artworks were evolving and challenging us as well. Environmental installations appeared. Glorifying the disposable, commonality of everyday objects in the form of Pop Art exploded. Minimalist sculptural works were juxtaposed with massive, large scale household items that begged the question, “What is art?”

In the world of art materials, the advent of paint sold in large quantities emerged. People working in abstract themes painted big and needed a lot of paint. Manufacturers complied by introducing a lot of 120 ml size tubes in their production lines. Acrylic paints were starting to mature to some extent. However, I still can recall that my purchase of acrylics in the early 1970s were laced with manufacturing failures.

Earth colors came out of tubes in clots. Some paints came out in spaghetti like strings of semi-hard color that would not yield to mixing. A few colors separated with the pigments remaining in the tube and the only thing that came out was a clear syrup-like medium. Obviously, manufacturers did not understand the nature of aqueous color mixing using “space age” materials and batches of color were sold that were failures.

Aside from acrylics, the paint that transports me back to the early 1970s is oil paint with the tube design that Winsor and Newton used.

I recall from my youth the art store in a nearby town that provided me with my first supplies. They had only two brands of paint, Grumbacher and Winsor and Newton. So, artists had the choice between domestic and imported and the price reflected the added cost of overseas shipping. In acrylics, Liquitex and Bocour were the brands available in stores. Bocour acrylics came in an unusual clear plastic box that defied logic as to how to open it or why they refrained from using the now common tube rack system.

I could only afford the Grumbacher oil paint. The Winsor and Newton tubes were considerably more in price. I thought, someday, … someday, I will get to use tubes of Winsor and Newton oil paint.

Depicted in this essay is the tube style that takes me back to that era. It is a simple design. Winsor and Newton tubes in the previous generation were silver with a small label that surrounded upper part of the tube. They even sported metal caps. The tubes were coated in white with a large label using the “WN” palette logo, “Artists’ Oil Colour,” followed by the color name, the catalogue number and the mysterious “SL” printed in red, that signified that this color was on the “Select List.” An SL color could be trusted to play nicely with other SL colors Winsor and Newton manufactured. Since Winsor and Newton marketed internationally, the color names in 4 different languages were printed on the lower part of the label.

The WN gryphon appeared on the side of the label and the rear of the label displayed the manufacturer name, the selected list designation, the place of manufacturer, the series and the size of the product. The large knurled cap provided ample room for it to be easily mounted in a display rack. Seeing a full rack of paint, even though it was financially unobtainable created a moment of joy and awe for me.

Despite all this, paint is made to be used, not admired while still in the tube. Unused paint is art that was never realized and brought into existence. That feeling is driven home when I spent time examining and reviewing cataloged paint tubes that were contained in a famous artist studio upon their death. At some point several artists’ estates provided studio materials in a gift to the National Gallery’s Art Materials Collection. In looking at these tubes of paint, I wondered what great works were never made from the paint laid out before me. We will never know.

Have a wonderful and safe holiday season. More new exciting essays on adventures in art will be posted shortly after the holidays. Until then…

The Syntax of Color

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