There were warning signs. The preoccupation with particles sizes. Curious substances producing pigments as if by magic. An intolerance for short cuts and misdirection. The arcane combination of science and alchemy. Could this be a plot for a Gothic novel? Actually it would make a good one.
But no, these are the warning signs of an artist searching for the ideal artist's paints. As I discovered in a recent interview with a paint maker this passion can become an obsession. Not that Joe Joubert has gone that far. He is passionate about paint and has bravely taken on the challenge. The least I could do was try out his paints.
So what are his handmade master artist paints like? Read on.
What are Old Master Oil Paints?
For artists venturing into oil painting for the first time the contents of the tube is the least of their worries. When they walk out of the art shop clutching a bag of paints there may be two things on their mind. First the price of the paints and second whether they will make a hash of their painting.
Do you take the tube's contents for granted? Happy that the paint looks like the colour suggested by the label? You are not alone. But one day you may consider what it was like for painters centuries ago. The Old Masters. That constant reminder about what great art looks like. How did they do it without tubes of shiny paint in the shop?
Well things are much more convenient for us now. But is our paint better for it? Not so much. Those light filled and glittering paintings from the likes of Rembrandt, Rubens and Raphael? Not to mention Verrocchio, Velazquez and Vermeer. All painted with handmade oils, pigments and other natural substances. Most often earth elements, minerals plants and even a few unfortunate animals. Pass the cuttlefish please.
Painters from those days made their paints or had someone make them by hand. A limited range of colours for sure, but what these artists did with them beggars belief. The thing is though why do these paintings still look so good? Those paints should have expired by now.
Turns out that old fashioned paint making methods are excellent. Not only do the paintings last a long time, but the colours keep their special vibrance and richness too.
Modern Paints Made the Old Way
The surge in modern chemical production in the twentieth century scooped up artist paint production too. Chemicals that had similar compounds to traditional materials have advantages. Mostly economic. These paints are cheap to make. Yes sometimes safer and highly saturated colours are possible. But are they better?
Some paint makers did not think so. They want to make paint with traditional methods and materials. All too often modern paints contain large proportions of waxes, binders and fillers. The result? Dull paint that looks like toothpaste.
Paint makers like Rublev and Vasari set out to keep original pigments going. Paint should consist of lots of excellent quality pigment and oil. That is it.
Safety Issues Overblown?
At some point scientists discovered that lead is poisonous to humans. Many consumer goods contained lead and paint was one of them. Some children developed a taste for lead paint flakes on their toys. Litigation followed. Legislation not long after. Goodbye lead paint.
Unfortunately artist's white paint was made from lead carbonate. Lead white or flake white is a superb white paint much admired by master artists. Lead white is now outlawed in the European Union and frowned upon elswhere. But is this fear of lead in artist's paint justified?
In my interview with paint maker, Joe Joubert, it seems not. For one thing lead carbonate in artist's paint is held in check by linseed oil. The biggest risk is lead dust. For example sanding dried paint or in other industrial activities.
If you decide to consume paint then harm will surely follow. I do imagine that anyone following this practice is bound to harm themselves one way or another anyway.
The point is artists paints pose little danger. Common sense precautions are necessary whenever paints and solvents are present. Many painters who used lead paint lived to a ripe old age. Claude Monet lived to eighty-six.
Artists in South Africa who want top quality paints have a few hurdles to overcome. One is finding a supplier. Second is finance to buy sufficient quantities. Third, if you import them, is getting the paint out of customs. Finance may apply here too. And rage, definitely rage.
By good fortune some of these paints are now made in South Africa. Thanks to Joe Joubert. An artist who hails from the Kalahari region. Joe has spent eighteen years researching paints made the traditional way. His journey is fascinating and I do encourage you to listen to the podcast interview.
In short Joe Joubert Artist's Oils can be purchased direct. No mark ups or customs involved. Currently priced at only R180.00 per 100ml tube. What a bargain. But are the paints any good? Will you be able to use them properly? How do they compare to the regular paints you have been using?
Lets find out.
The Paint Test
I purchased some earth colours from Joe. Interesting sounding colours like Hematite Red, Slate Blue Light, Slate Grey and Augrabies Ochre. Also a tube of Titanium white. My test of Flake white will follow another day.
You can see these paints in the video below. My observations can summarised as follows:
He does mention a few exciting colours coming soon. Sepia, following Leonardo da Vinci's research, promises to be a stunning colour. Indigo, alizarin and hansa yellow are likely to follow soon too.
How fortunate for us that there is this option to choose from. It is important that this initiative is not lost through apathy in the market place. I cannot overstate the importance of using excellent quality paint. Now we have an opportunity to source this paint at affordable prices too. Let's not ignore it.
Interested in Seeing a Few of the Great Artist's Works?