Before the technological advancement of portable paints in tubes, artists were working primarily from their studios, working from memory or rough sketches and painting still life and portraits. When they did leave the studio, sketching was done using graphite, watercolor or chalk. They would then return to their studio to complete the project. It is quite possible that a considerable amount of time was spent making multiple trips back and forth to achieve the desired result. The paint tube was a new awakening, artists could gather their paints, brushes, paint boxes and easels, head outdoors to paint on-site at the location of their choice.
Artists of the early centuries prepared materials themselves or with the help of an assistant. Pigments were made from natural minerals, purchased in brick or cone form and hand-ground using a curved piece of stone or glass called a ‘muller’. There was no reference to the density of the bricks or cones but I’m sure grinding was not an easy task. Historical pigments were usually purchased through a druggist since doctors and artists used the same ingredients. Many of these pigments contained mercury and arsenic sulfide which were dangerously toxic and makes me wonder if that could be why many artists died young. After paints had been mixed, they were stored in jars or pottery. Prepared paints had to be used rather quickly as they would become unusable within a short period of time. Toward the end of the 17th century a new trade was emerging, the colorman. This was an individual who mixed and sold pigments which was of great convenience to the artist. Now there’s a ‘light bulb above the head’ for a business idea at precisely the right time.
By the end of the18th century the trade of the artists colorman was growing. The pre-ground pigments were kept stocked in powder form and made-to-order by mixing with linseed oil and thinner. The mixed pigments were first sold in dried pig’s bladders which were cut into squares and secured with a string. To me, this just sounds disgusting but it was rather resourceful. When ready, the artist would prick the pouch with a sharp object and squeeze out the amount of paint needed. A tack was then used to reseal the pouch. Although these pouches were portable, they were messy and would sometimes leak during travel. In 1822, James Ham invented a glass syringe with a plunger for squeezing out the paint. The tubes were effective but were heavy, cleaning them was not easy and there was always the possibility of broken glass.
Later, in 1841, a portrait painter from Charleston, South Carolina named John Goffe Rand faced a problem that he eventually grew increasingly annoyed with. His pallete of colors would dry before he was able to use them and therefore were wasted. He took to the drawing board and designed the first collapsible paint tube – problem solved. He applied and was granted Patent No. 2252 on September 11, 1841 and his idea became a reality that would bring about drastic changes. The tubes were constructed by rolling a sheet of lead between sheets of tin. The next steps were to press the rolled metals into shapes called ‘dumps’, punch them into tubes and solder the edges. They were then filled with paint from the bottom, trimmed and crimped. According to Rand’s patent, the tube had a screw on cap although conflicting sources state that this was an ‘improvement’ invented later by William Winsor. Along with the paint tube came many more colors to choose from. One drawback was that ingredients that gave texture also made them turn yellowish over time which I’m sure was very frustrating. A French artist by the name of Monsieur Richard copied Rand’s design and produced tubes that were made exclusively of tin. The paint tube was evolving fast and traditional paint-making was becoming a ‘lost art’.
During this time period the number of emerging artists was growing. For the most part these artists were only interested in painting and did not care to spend valuable time mixing colors in the traditional way. Instead, they preferred conveniences not limited to just the new paint tubes. One example is the ‘Box Easel’ which was easily portable. This easel was an all-in-one setup with telescopic legs and a built-in paint box. Just grab it and go – it really couldn’t get much easier than that.
The 1840’s was an exciting turning point for all artists including Renoir who was quoted as saying “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cezanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.” The Industrial Revolution made mass production of products more achievable. Aluminum, which was more flexible, would eventually replace tin and lead in the manufacturing of paint tubes. Modern paint tubes are constructed mostly of aluminum alloy or plastic and far less toxic. The spectrum of available colors has increased tremendously but only with time will we be able to determine if they are as durable as the historical paints. I find it admirable that some artists still choose to prepare paints using traditional method and not relying on modern synthetics.
A negative of modern tubes is that they are not easily recyclable. These tubes are made from a combination of different materials it requires great effort and expensive machinery to pulverize and separate them for recycling. We are all, myself included, becoming more dependent on modern conveniences. It is sad that technology has become so advanced that artists are utilizing apps such as Artify as a substitute for their creative process. Any photo can be turned into an Impressionist representation or anything else for that matter and copied onto canvas. The photo itself is perhaps the only thing original. I find it very disrespectful to the artists that earned their place in history by fighting for the hard way.
Plein air painting became very popular because it gave the artist unlimited space to explore, discover and step beyond their limitations. They were no longer limited to the studio, could paint from reality.
Previous paintings done outdoors were usually small, but now an artist could go bigger or even take on a series of paintings, working from early morning until late afternoon alternating canvases as the light changed. Painting outdoors allowed the artist to paint true colors of their surroundings such as colorful gardens, majestic mountains, charming villages or blue oceans. Lights, shadows, shifting skies and weather conditions were constantly changing so it was crucial that work be done quickly. Not to sound pessimistic but I’m sure there were other bothersome things such as people creeping up behind to watch and blocking the light in the process, bugs flying into the wet paint or sudden wind gusts blowing debris onto the canvas. I have unintentionally incorporated a mosquito into a painting so I know the feeling.
In doing research I became curious to learn more about some of the artists of this era. I found Paul Cezanne to be fascinating and felt the need to deviate a little and mention him. As a young artist he lacked confidence in his artistic abilities. He was content in working alone which I can totally identify with. It seems he was somewhat of a bohemian mystery man which I find even more intriguing. Apparently he had a brush with luck when several other Impressionists, including Pissarro, who acknowledged his skills and gave him encouragement. I believe that having that encouragement, the tools of convenience and working alongside Pissarro gave him the confidence he needed to share himself and his talent more publicly. By taking that step his style changed, he became more passionate, his colors became brighter and his painting became more vibrant and more alive. I think the skull paintings have to be my favorite because they add to his mysteriousness. I ran across a quote after reading quite a bit about him and it fit perfectly. ‘The most seductive thing about art is the personality of the artist himself’ – Paul Cezanne
People, not just artists, from all over the world continue to enjoy the art of plein air painting and it appears to have become a movement itself. On a trip to Estes Park, Colorado I witnessed a scattered group of artists, some under white umbrellas, at the base of Deer Mountain painting what I assumed was the sunset since it was spectacular that day. They all seemed so ‘at peace’, showing no frustration or discontent with what was being put on their canvases but only with ‘being’. On a separate trip the Texas Hill Country I was fortunate to witness plein air painting again. This time, a father and son had set up easels on a perfectly flat rock area in the middle of the Frio River and were immersed in painting the large cypress trees, tall cliffs and flowing water. Also, after doing this research, I discovered that Lucille Ball (one of my favorite ladies of all time) enjoyed plein air painting as one of her hobbies as well. I now feel it is most important that I make the time to experience this for myself. We live on a beautiful lake and our pier would be the perfect spot.
John Goffe Rand had a vision and he took that vision and made it a reality. He took his own negative and turned it into a positive. His invention of the paint tube provided opportunity and convenience for artists to create the great works we see today. By bringing his idea to fruition he drew the artists from their studios and gave them freedom to express themselves in new ways. Over the years, his invention has continually been improved upon and it is evident in many of the products we use today. He is proof that one man can make a difference and did.