My latest work combines using leftover bits of wood, a love of simple woodworking and an interest in the more everyday applications of paint. While, as artists, it is easy to focus on painting as an intellectually aesthetic discipline or as a means to test and enjoy our powers of observation, manipulation of materials and hand-eye coordination the majority of paints and pigments have been, and still are, used for decorating and protecting surfaces around the house and industrially.
For example, Bideford Black, a North Devon pigment that I have spent time researching[i], was used primarily in the shipbuilding industry as an anti-foul, as a household paint (Zats Black), to paint tank camouflage in WWII, for dyeing rubber and cement and even for making mascara, but I am yet to find evidence of it being commercially processed as an artist’s pigment. Despite recent local and national artistic interest it is, in my experience, a rather gritty, difficult and dull black material that is prone to sapping the life out of all the other colours it comes close to. So while Reeves of London may have considered another North Devon pigment, Berrynarbour Umber, ‘essential for any paint box’ I cannot see Leonardo sending for some Bideford Black (as he may have for yellow from Naples or green from Verona)! But then it has its very own nature and one that as artists and/or paint makers we can choose to embrace or at least take into account if using it.
Every pigment I have used has its own quality and spirit, and recognizing and working with this understanding is one of the primary and most exciting lessons I have learnt from gathering and processing pigments. They are all an expression of a place, of a geological process and may carry with them a provenance rooted in nature and social history, as well as qualities that lend themselves to one purpose or another. Similarly, while the colours I often use for display and educational purposes are quite bold (to impress and surprise people with the richness of colour under our feet) the subtlety and range of colours of soils, clays and rocks associated with any site is utterly sublime. This may often be seen when studying the colours of materials and paints used in architecture from region to region and the sense of place this inspires.
Another area of interest to me, through my alter ego as a painter and decorator, has been the fashion (albeit necessary) for ‘environmentally friendly’ household paint. While industry searches for new products to replace traditionally oil-based paints we are happy to accept (inferior) low-odour acrylic substitutes. I am not sure exactly how household paints are manufactured or what they are made from but do know that acrylics have an equally dubious environmental impact.
From my experience, traditional oil based paints work – they stay on the surface for a good while whereas contemporary substitutes tend to scratch off easily and attract dirt more readily, sometimes removing more of the paint when wiped! To my knowledge oil based paints have been made using plant resins and oils and cleaned and thinned with turpentine – another plant based product. The issue of pollution often occurs in production, cleaning brushes, in disposal and from fumes given off when applying. Whereas modern ‘plastic’ paints, while addressing many of the H&S issues of traditional paints, may stop plaster and stone from ‘breathing’ causing problems with damp and water retention[ii]. This is not to say that there is nothing wrong with good old traditional paint – that we should just ‘get a grip’ over a bit of casual solvent abuse and some dead fish – but that there is obviously still a lot of work to be done to reach a satisfactory conclusion both in terms of environmental impact, health and safety, and durability.
Maybe it is more our attitudes towards and understanding of such matters that need addressing!? Whatever, every circumstance and application is individual as are the solutions…
Rants and ramblings aside, it has been fascinating cobbling together old bits and pieces of wood to make new surfaces to paint on and seeing how the hand made paint works with the different surfaces. The pieces have taken on a more sculptural feel, playing the illusional 3D qualities achieved by painting off against the shallow relief of the structured surface. Thankfully some of the pieces have already been sold, the buyer commenting on the ‘Wabi Sabi’ quality of the work – a Japanese world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection[iii], the principle of repair, making new from old, celebrating the beauty of decay and repurpose. While this was not necessarily my intention, I do like the association.
© P Ward 2016
(Note: Apologies for the slightly distorted imagery – the frames are actually square. I have temporarily lost use of my photo editing programme due to a systems upgrade. If anyone knows of a good free photo editing suite that allows you to rotate by degrees and adjust camera distortion, please let me know :-))
[ii] However, to the contrary, we have recently been experimenting with organic binders, such as rabbit skin glue and gum Arabic, and found that in certain environmental conditions, such as damp and cold, or through errors in preparation, they are prone to rapid disintegration – to mould and flaking. A factor not conducive to good business practice in the production and commercial distribution of fine objets d’art!