Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In praise of art materials

Last Friday evening I went to David Cohen’s Review Panel at the National Academy Museum, and as usual, David’s wry sense of humor (humor? in the art world?) and nose for controversy, kept things moving at a good clip. This time the panelists were artist Greg Lindquist, Barbara MacAdam (deputy editor ARTnews) and John Perrault discussing current shows by Suzan Frecon, Oliver Herring, Liz Cohen, and Guillermo Kuitca. Perrault is a veteran art writer (Village Voice, and the SoHo Weekly News, for anyone who can remember that far back) who now writes a blog called Artopia. I find I disagree with almost everything he says.
We got off on the wrong foot not long ago when I was researching Olafur Eliasson and came across this on his blog:

All of this windswept wind-up is for nought (sic) because for all practical purposes Eliasson is more Danish than Icelandic; although he was born in Iceland and offers a series of landscape photographs of my beloved island, he grew up in Denmark.

Perrault loves Iceland and doesn’t like Eliasson, therefore Eliasson has no claim to being, in any but the merest way, Icelandic—rather like those who love America and dislike Obama. I wrote to Perrault with a correction, but no changes were made.

[Fact is that while Olafur’s parents were Icelandic, he was born in Copenhagen—Perrault might have checked Wikipedia. When they separated he went to school in Denmark but spent summers with his father, an artist, in Iceland. His mentor was his father’s friend, Gunnar, and Olafur had his first “exhibition” on Gunnar’s land outside Reykjavik. Olafur also speaks fair Icelandic, which can hardly be picked up a few photography jaunts—I can attest to that.]

But back to the panel where, when discussing Oliver Herring, who employs a lot of everyday stuff in his performance-based work, Perrault spoke out against what he termed the “art supply racket.”

OMG there’s been a movement against art materials going on and I didn’t know it? No wonder everything looks like crap!

Poor mute things that they are, I felt obliged to come to their defense.

Actually it’s something I feel strongly about and stress when I’m teaching. It’s not that great art can’t be crafted from anything; it can. But what fine art materials offer is maximum possibility for expression, for precision and nuance.  If you never try using good materials, you’ll never know what you can do.

I’m always railing against Fredrix stretchers and Winton (student grade) oil paint. Perrault may love warped supports and raw, under-pigmented colors, but I find them terminally distracting. And enough with the glitter already. There are exceptions, but most of the time when I see art made with cheap materials, it all looks the same.

Perrault responded that art made with high quality oil on linen all looks the same.

Caravaggio…Monet…Rothko…I don’t even know where to go with that.

[But then this is the same writer who suggested, on his blog, that museums should rent out their spaces to high-end clothiers and “migrate to the internet” where the art could be “cloud-stored, eternal, with free access for all worldwide.” But here he really is kidding, right?]

I remember when my brother, age 7, wanted to learn the saxophone and our thrifty parents, not wanting to invest until they knew he was serious, rented him one that sounded like a duck in its last throes. His interest in the saxophone lasted about two weeks.

Musicians prize their instruments and no one gets on their case about it. Art materials are our instruments, and yes (I hear you whining) they are expensive. But, except for writing, anything worth doing is expensive. We’re professionals, remember? Or, if students, we want to be. Professionals use the best materials they can get. Does Mario Batali buy his olive oil at PriceChopper? Would you want your surgeon to use a cut-rate scalpel?

Art is more than line or concept—it’s about sensuality, which is why it doesn’t translate to the Web. Sensuality is what makes the difference between illustration and fine art, and requires a finesse that’s hard to achieve with magic markers.  I got this even as a kid, which is why I wasn’t even interested in art until I discovered there was a world beyond crayons, construction paper and finger paint. To this day it’s the materials that inspire me. I see a great new Williamsburg color, or the PanPastels I’m currently so crazy about, and think, “Hmmm. What can I do with that?”

Anyway, the makers of fine art materials are hardly trying to rip us off. The ones I’ve known are dedicated, almost fanatical artisans; I’m grateful that there are people out there devoting their lives to making my art look good. And Verizon could take a lesson or two in tech support from the people at Golden acrylics.

If you believe in your vision, it’s worth investing in. Once I decided that working on pre-stretched canvases would “free me up.” Ha! I ended up working on them as long as any other paintings and then had to spend $300+ each to frame them so they’d look decent on a wall.

Racket, schmacket. But I love contradicting myself, and so will add that I'm in awe of what graffiti artists can do with simple cans of spray paint. Did everyone see this piece in Sunday’s Times on the Underbelly Project in the subways? Be sure to watch the video.


16 comments:

Emily Auch... said...

Ah, the fine line between fetishizing materials and ignoring their instrinsic power...I go to a school where certain painting professors can talk for hours about Robert Doak lead white... but what exactly are they doing with their lead white? It's a conundrum: while I find stretching and prepping my canvases with rabbit skin glue and oil ground extremely satisfying and enchanting (it's all about finding that elusive surface!), I see Johannes Van Der Beek's latest show of tie died paper towels and bent soup cans to be a delightful and yes, sensitive example of transforming lowbrow materials to form poetic meaning. There's a lot of crap out there, made with crap; but a transformative experience can be made with just about anything under the sun.
That said, I'll leave the paper towel creations to others, thank you very much.

Jo said...

I didn't realise the importance of good quality paints whilst I was a student. I wish someone had pointed this out to me earlier though, as it made such a difference to my work when I started using artists quality oil paints.

Bea Modisett said...

One of the reasons I enjoy your blog so much is the humor...as you say, it's a breath of fresh air. You always manage to use it to make a strong point though. Also - this underbelly project is spreading like wildfire! It's plastered all over facebook. Thanks for the wonderful post.

Lise said...

Bravo. There are so many quotable quotes in here, I lost count.

This goes along with something else I've noticed: that aesthetics -- the sensual quality of anything -- far from being superficial, is essential.

jend said...

This is so true! thank you for the post!

Mink said...

I love the good stuff, right on

Graham White said...

And just to mention that on the web, there is no COLOR, except the color your system and monitor display. The elephant in the room... total disregard for color fidelity online, seeps into art publication–ever notice how bad the color reproductions have become in most art books?–and writing. And maybe practice... why use good paint when the qualities vanish online?

Carol Diehl said...

Good point about online viewing of art. Funny how we've come to think that "online" is the only valid experience of anything these days. The challenge is that visual art remains an "in-person" experience. It is meant to be viewed in person and/or lived with. Good art materials extend possibility, hence encourage the artist's development--and his/her enjoyment of the art-making process.

Nancy McCarthy said...

Yes! My great fear is that as the demand for better quality products is diminishing the prices will become exorbitant , making the good stuff not accessible to most of us hard working artists. Also, the art supply racket actually is more in the production of the student grade materials. Paints that cost pennies to produce are sold for $15-$20. I don't think the better brands have nearly that kind of mark-up.

Carol Diehl said...

Exactly!

deb said...

nearly always you say something I wish I had said, sensuality... that is so perfect... as to low brow materials I saw a student work last semester made from cup cake liners and it was one of the most stunning things I have ver seen. As you say it is not ALL about the materials, but good ones certainly help especially at the beginning.

Anonymous said...

I spend $80 on a tube of gorgeous paint only to have gallery interns hit "auto tone/auto contrast" on photoshop and then post my work that way to the website for all to see. I personally don't care if my work disappears from the internet completely, lest I hire a full time jpeg colorist and the world's most capable flat copy photographer. I have never made a painting so that it would be reproduced, and that's incredibly hard for any modern person to understand, since everything is conceived for reproduction at this point. If you can't come within an inch of the surface, I don't mind if people skip over my work completely, because you're not looking at it anyways. The same can be said for digital music, but in my mind the impact isn't mitigated by scale and flat-ness in the same way with music. People hear digital trash and can knowingly hear it, and compensate in their minds, and more importantly think to themselves, that if they pay ten bucks for the album they can hear a better version. It's not as though the key of the tune has been changed, the length of the song has been shortened, the scale of the mix diminished, etc, etc, etc, etc. I have no money and I have three guitars older than I am. My room mate keeps telling me to sell them for rent money, but those are my materials, my tubes of Williamsburg cadmium orange. Without them I lose my means to make the kind of recordings I want to make.

Interesting conversation to be having these days, about materials, when it's all just pixels now and forevermore. One last thought on materials... the last line of originality for any artist, is the personal touch they bring to something we all have access to at the store. You can still make a painting with Wintons and have it end up in a museum.

James Trankina said...

I did a test one time with other artists, and used ultramarine blue. I put out a swatch of Student grade, and one of artist grade, and using the same white, we did a test. They didn't know which was the "good stuff" and which was the student grade. There is so much hype in the art materials world, that I view everything I read with suspicion. Even the cheapest student grade paints that we see now days are better than what many old masters had available to them. Imagine in another time when blue was a rare color, what the old masters would have thought of a big cheap tube of phthalo blue! In times gone by, the church was the only organization that could afford blue, so when they commissioned an artist to do a painting using it, they actually posted guards, to prevent pilfering. Many of those old masters would have treasured a cheap tube of present student grade ultramarine blue. There are also student grade paints that contain better pigments. For example, what would be better, a tube of artist grade alizarin, or a tube of student grade permanent alizarin? How about oils? Is linseed oil better? Some believe it forms a much more durable film that safflower. So, if we have artist grade paint in safflower, and student in linseed which is better? What about people who paint extremely thick? Would it be cost effective to squeeze out a whole tube of Old Holland Cerulean blue? Or could a more economical mix using phthalo, titanium white, etc. approximate a similar color?

Some artists paint with house paint, and create wonderful works. Our ancestors were painting with red dirt mixed with animal fat, onto cave walls. Imagine that! Those paintings may not have benefitted from the present art material manufacturing community, but they have managed to last 100,000 years.
The best thing to do when it comes to art materials, at least in my opinion, is to educate yourself, and do the best you can. Find what works well for you, and use it. Also, be careful who you listen to when it comes to materials. There are manufacturers who sneak around websites, blowing smoke up the as ends of anyone who will read. They attempt to convince artists that they need a secret sauce in order to paint. Or they foster this whole student vs. artist grade paint distraction. I think it was Titian who said that a good artist should be able to paint with mud on a stick.

If you don't watch out, you will get caught up in a whirlwind of crap. Artist grade is better than student. Don't use paint that contains aluminum stearate. Don't use lead, no use lead, don't use natural resins, no use alkyds, no don't use alkyds. Don't use rabbit skin glue, its too hygroscopic, no use PVC. No don't use PVC, it hasn't stood the test of time. Paint on linen, no paint on rigid support; no cotton duck will suffice. Don't use vermilion, it will blacken. Don't use burnt umber, it will cause your colors to sink. Don't spray your work with retouch, it will cause cracking. No do use retouch; no oil out instead; no don't oil out, it will cause yellowing. Don't draw with pencil, use charcoal; no its ok to do underdrawings with pencil. Don't fix with natural resins, oh, thats OK. You must use Munsell to mix color; no you can mix by eye, no you can't! Yes you can, no you can't and you do need to get the $500.00 Munsell book with color chips; no you don't, yes you do, blah blah, baa, baaaah lala la la, blah dala la la lahh, dahhh!

Good thing that Van Gogh didn't have the internet, who knows what he might have cut off.

Carol Diehl said...

Strangely, this comment appeared in my email box but not here. It's from James Trankina:

I did a test one time with other artists, and used ultramarine blue. I put out a swatch of Student grade, and one of artist grade, and using the same white, we did a test. They didn't know which was the "good stuff" and which was the student grade. There is so much hype in the art materials world, that I view everything I read with suspicion. Even the cheapest student grade paints that we see now days are better than what many old masters had available to them. Imagine in another time when blue was a rare color, what the old masters would have thought of a big cheap tube of phthalo blue! In times gone by, the church was the only organization that could afford blue, so when they commissioned an artist to do a painting using it, they actually posted guards, to prevent pilfering. Many of those old masters would have treasured a cheap tube of present student grade ultramarine blue. There are also student grade paints that contain better pigments. For example, what would be better, a tube of artist grade alizarin, or a tube of student grade permanent alizarin? How about oils? Is linseed oil better? Some believe it forms a much more durable film that safflower. So, if we have artist grade paint in safflower, and student in linseed which is better? What about people who paint extremely thick? Would it be cost effective to squeeze out a whole tube of Old Holland Cerulean blue? Or could a more economical mix using phthalo, titanium white, etc. approximate a similar color?

Some artists paint with house paint, and create wonderful works. Our ancestors were painting with red dirt mixed with animal fat, onto cave walls. Imagine that! Those paintings may not have benefitted from the present art material manufacturing community, but they have managed to last 100,000 years.
The best thing to do when it comes to art materials, at least in my opinion, is to educate yourself, and do the best you can. Find what works well for you, and use it. Also, be careful who you listen to when it comes to materials. There are manufacturers who sneak around websites, blowing smoke up the as ends of anyone who will read. They attempt to convince artists that they need a secret sauce in order to paint. Or they foster this whole student vs. artist grade paint distraction. I think it was Titian who said that a good artist should be able to paint with mud on a stick.

If you don't watch out, you will get caught up in a whirlwind of crap. Artist grade is better than student. Don't use paint that contains aluminum stearate. Don't use lead, no use lead, don't use natural resins, no use alkyds, no don't use alkyds. Don't use rabbit skin glue, its too hygroscopic, no use PVC. No don't use PVC, it hasn't stood the test of time. Paint on linen, no paint on rigid support; no cotton duck will suffice. Don't use vermilion, it will blacken. Don't use burnt umber, it will cause your colors to sink. Don't spray your work with retouch, it will cause cracking. No do use retouch; no oil out instead; no don't oil out, it will cause yellowing. Don't draw with pencil, use charcoal; no its ok to do underdrawings with pencil. Don't fix with natural resins, oh, thats OK. You must use Munsell to mix color; no you can mix by eye, no you can't! Yes you can, no you can't and you do need to get the $500.00 Munsell book with color chips; no you don't, yes you do, blah blah, baa, baaaah lala la la, blah dala la la lahh, dahhh!

Good thing that Van Gogh didn't have the internet, who knows what he might have cut off.

birdspot said...

This was really nice to see. I never give anyone a hard time for not engaging deeply with materials, but to suggest they are merely a distraction is ridiculous. They're only a distraction if you don't have sufficient brain power to subsume the information and utilize them instinctively.

Anonymous said...

Subsume away Birdspot, but to get overly caught up in artist materials debates is a distraction. Keep it simple, and remember, expensive doesn't always mean better.

Carol,

I don't know why my post was in your email, but I am a technosaur, so in consideration of that, I am not surprised. Apologies, nonetheless.

Jim Trankina