THE BLOG
07/30/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2014

Artists Rediscover the Value of Making Their Own Paints

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.

Plansky, who died in 2009, became interested in where to get pigments and how to produce paints, and that grew from curiosity to a passion, which only increased when he began working for an art supply shop. "I was the guy artists came to about colors," he said. One of those customers, abstract expressionist painter Milton Resnick, gave Plansky his pigment grinding mill on condition that Plansky would agree to make paints for him. The number of artist clients increased and, in 1984, he started his own art supply manufacturing company, Williamsburg Artist Materials, which both makes artists' paints, as well as other products, and sells pigments and binders for artists like him who prefer to make their own.

There are many reasons for and against making one's own paints. On the pro side, the cost of purchasing the components in artists' paints add up to considerably less money than the price of buying commercially available tubes, plus the fact that those who make their own usually buy in bulk, which increases the savings. For example, Gamblin Colors -- a Portland, Oregon-based company that was founded by Robert Gamblin, another painter-turned-paint-maker (who still continues to paint) -- charges $7.95 for four ounces of burnt sienna dry pigment and $8.95 for a two ounce tube of burnt sienna artists' paint. (Artists would also need to purchase a certain amount of binder and a stabilizer, but the comparable cost of the component ingredients would still come to about half of the paint tube.) Perhaps even more valuable is the knowledge acquired of the materials and the manner in which they react under specific conditions, as well as how to create colors that no manufacturer has produced and how to modify the paint (add more or less pigment or oil or beeswax or sand or anything else) in order to achieve certain effects.

On the down side, grinding pigments and mixing them with binders and stabilizers takes time -- at the beginning, there will be considerable trial and error to produce something usable and then reproduce it exactly -- when an artist may just want to go out or into the studio to paint. It is unlikely that an artist will ever be able to grind pigments by hand as small as those of the large paint manufacturers, which have invested in large machinery for that purpose, and this will adversely affect the ability of those pigments to disperse evenly in oil. Too, the differences between commercially available paint and the most optimal homemade type are quite subtle, and the resulting artwork will be judged not by the paint itself but by traditional art criteria -- the brushwork, composition, tonal values and the inherent quality of the image. This is truly the realm of paint nerds.

"A better paint changes the nature of a painting, and people really do notice," said Raoul Middleman, an instructor of painting and drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and a former president of the National Academy of Design, as well as a decades-long maker of his own paints. "There's a physicality in the paint that brings the art to life." Part of what we admire in the work of the Old Masters, who mixed their own colors, he claimed, is the paints they used. "I think Rubens' paintings are about vermillion. I think Rembrandt's paintings are about white lead."

His paint-making also reflects a criticism of most commercial manufacturers of artist-grade colors, which he accuses of placing too many additives (extenders, drying agents, stabilizers) and too much oil in paints. "There's not enough tinting strength. You put a little white in there, and the color disappears." Manufacturers, he claimed, also strive to give every one of their paints "the same ubiquitous buttery consistency. Pigments have different weights and transparencies, but when every paint has the same consistency you lose the essential properties of the pigments."

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."