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Daniel Grant

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Some Artists Make Their Own Paints

Posted: 06/13/11 04:32 PM ET

When he was just starting out as a painter in the early 1970s, Carl Plansky's main criterion for buying paints was "whatever was on sale. I was very poor." Even as he earned enough from one job or another to afford better art supplies, the Brooklyn, New York artist was still not satisfied with the selection. "I needed colors that Delacroix and Turner had used in their paintings. There were many magnificent pigments available, but I couldn't get them, because for the manufacturers they weren't profitable for them to produce as paints."

So began this painter's entry into the world of making his own colors, finding and ordering specialized pigments around the world ("people thought at the time that I was very exotic"), grinding and mixing them with linseed oil. He didn't get the hang of making his own paints overnight, finding that cobalts and cadmiums worked best for him when ground again and again ("I try to make it as fine as I can get it, so that the maximum amount of light can travel through it, to create a stained glass effect") but that viridian became dull ("just the color green") if it were ground too much.

Art world nerdiness, or maybe it is romanticism. Certainly, in this time when much contemporary art focuses on ideas and theories rather than technical prowess (few art schools teach their students much of anything about the materials in use), a growing number of artists have sought a greater connectedness to their art, making hand-made paper and picture frames and even their own painting supports. "A lot of people are enchanted by the idea of making their own paints," Plansky said. "There is a poetry to it. It is often as creatively satisfying as painting itself." That, however, can also be a drawback, because making one's own supplies takes away time and energy from creating art. The companies that sell artists' pigments, binders and other paint-making materials find that repeat customers are relatively few. "A lot of artists like the experience of making paint but switch back to tube colors after a short while," said Scott Gellatle, product manager at Gamblin Colors. "Painters who make a living making art these days either have to demand a lot of money for each piece or they have to be very prolific. Most need to be prolific, and time spent on making paint is time spent away from painting."

Making an oil paint is not itself an overly complicated business. To start, pour a small amount of dry pigment forming a mound onto a nonporous slab surface, such as glass or marble; then, make an impression in the center of the mound and, into that, pour a small amount of linseed or other oil. Not a lot of oil is needed, and it is wiser to start with too little and add more than pour too much oil and have to add more pigment. The pigment should be worked into the oil using a palette knife until all the pigment has been dispersed and a paste consistency has been formed. Use a muller, which is a glass or stone grinding device, to spread the paint into a thin layer on the glass or marble; more pigment or more oil may be added, depending upon whether the paint is too runny or too thick. In paint jargon, thicker paints are referred to as "short," thinner ones as "long." One may paint with it immediately or scrape it in a tube (art supply stores sell empty tubes) or jar, covering it with a lid in order to limit exposure to air, which causes the paint to harden. Many artists planning to store their hand-made colors add some melted beeswax to the paint (two percent per volume of paint is recommended), which adds to its flexibility, lengthens the drying time and keeps the pigments from forming clumps in the oil.

Artist do-it-yourselfers also need to be aware of some basic safety rules. Some pigments are less dangerous than others, depending upon whether they can be metabolized into the body, but they never should be accessible to children. Artists should wear dust masks that cover their nostrils and mouth while handling pigments, as well as an apron or other protective clothing. Gloves should be used, especially if there are any cuts through which toxic substances might enter the blood stream. Pigments should never be heated, as toxic fumes may result. Certainly, artists should not eat or smoke while working, as potentially harmful substances may enter their mouths; additionally, they ought not to answer a telephone unless their hands are washed. If pigments get into one's eye, rinse it with running water and seek medical attention. The room in which the paint is made should have some ventilation system, and it is also a good idea not to sleep in the same room where one works in order to limit potential exposure. Dust on the glass or marble slab should be cleaned off with a damp paper towel or sponge, in order that the dusts are captured and not put into the air, and all trash should be enclosed in plastic and disposed of in accordance with local or state hazardous materials guidelines.

The issue of how to produce one's own artists' paints begs the larger question of whether the end results are worth the time and effort. This simply may be a subject on which artists and the rest of the world agree to disagree.