• Michael Skalka

"We May Never Pass This Way (Again""


Perhaps the reason I gravitate so strongly towards researching art materials and related items is that they have a long history. For me, art materials and the promotional literature and advertising associated with it grounds me in traditions. Unfortunately, many of these traditions are evaporating as the years progress. Progress can be astoundingly quick. On July 19, 1969 no human ever set foot on another celestial body. On July 20-21, that fact ceased to exist. Other instances are more subtle. Once there were pay telephones everywhere. Over a fairly long period of time, they disappeared one by one.



In the art materials world, small companies that were owned and operated by individuals, many of whom used their surnames for the companies they founded, have slowly been fading or were taken over by holding companies, other art materials manufacturers or venture capitalists.

William Winsor and Henry Newton created their company in 1832 that was based in the United Kingdom. Today Winsor and Newton has a parent company called Beckers that still makes paint under their own name called Beckers Normalfarg. (While writing this essay, it was painstakingly hard to find Beckers paint on the Internet) Today, W&N operates under a company named ColArt. Interestingly, Beckers does not acknowledge owning Winsor and Newton, nor does it list owning ColArt either. I suppose a company that makes tractors, railway cars, trucks, industrial coatings, construction materials, consumer electronics and appliances has little time to spend on waxing poetic about art materials.


I think what I miss the most is the little things that art materials companies produced in the past. Wonderful hand painted and assembled color charts are one of them. Some of the very early ones are dazzlingly beautiful. They speak to an age of showing off their products and casting them in the best light.

The art materials trade was driven by a sales force of real, live people who had sales territories, managed store inventories and created relationships with store owners. The owners catered to their local clients and knew their preferences and needs. The sales people provided what sold well and kept the paint racks and shelves fully stocked with products.


The current art material supply store landscape is a shadow of its former self. If small local stores haven’t closed because the owners retired or died, they may have been driven out of existence by the rise of online art supply stores. Think of the movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” but selling art supplies instead of books. However, in a never made “sequel” film, online sales wipe out both Fox Books and The Shop Around the Corner. Sorry Tom (NY152) and Meg (Shopgirl). You both go out of business!


Even as short a time as twenty years ago, many art materials suppliers created wonderful illustrated catalogs. They were hard to come by but at least they were still being created and distributed at trade shows and provided to supply stores. I believe the tradition of making supply catalogs is an offshoot of the traditional sales people’s trade catalogs. I have reviewed and studied manufacturers catalogs that are filled with notes, price changes, crossed out items that were discontinued.


The Winsor and Newton company ownership story I conveyed is one of many that have taken place in the art supply world. Both manufacturers and retailers have come and gone. A sad trend is the disappearance of local art supply stores. These stores were important to the lives of the artists living in the areas they served.


For those of us on the east coast, some may remember when Pearl Paint was both a “mecca” for artists with multiple floors of wall-to-wall art materials. More recently, with the passing of Steve Steinberg, an icon in the art materials trade, the closing of New York Central Supply, marked a punctuation mark to the dominance of old-world art supply purveyors. NY Central was not just an art supply store, it was a lifeline to artisans in other countries who made art materials like hand-made papers. The range of unique materials and hard to find items will likely never be duplicated again, especially by large national brand suppliers. Nobody has the desire to hand-build the knowledge base to become an aggregator of craftspeople in far away countries that make unique papers for artists.


So, while we have gained fast, easy access to art materials that cater to the mainstream of needs, we have quietly lost the analog world of person-to-person contact, creating relationships with individual artist who produce art materials on a small scale.

It is difficult to capture and convey the feeling of entering an art supply store that gives you the feeling that the items in the store were individually and carefully selected. The unusual quirks of product placement, manufacturers you never heard of before visiting, salespeople who actually know something about the materials they are selling.

The corporate takeovers strip away the unique identity of an art materials manufacturer a piece at a time. Brushes that cost too much get discontinued. Markers take their place. Paper mills close or drastically scale back their productions lines when giant commercial companies take over. The materials world for artists gets blander and homogenized over time. I realize the perspective is different for the distributors and manufacturers. They are struggling to stay in business during difficult times. The global supply chain problems are certainly not helping them either.


Keep working and if possible, try to support a local art materials supplier in your immediate area. They provide a richness of knowledge and product experience that should not go away. Also take advantage of the manufacturer’s hotline or email services for your questions.


The Syntax of Color


Blog Title: We May Never Pass This Way (Again)

Seals and Crofts, 1973





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