(Previously published in "Art Hardware" 1987, by Steven Saitzyk)
According to a Harris poll taken recently, fifty million people in the United States paint or draw. But the horrendous truth is that the average house painter knows more about the materials that he or she uses than the average contemporary artist does. Although many artists have learned early in their careers to pretend otherwise, the high stakes involving financial risks, as well as health hazards, have made it difficult to continue this pretense of knowledge. This situation has arisen not because artists are less professional about their endeavors than people in other occupations, but because of the serious lack of accurate information about contemporary artists' materials. In such other professions as medicine, engineering, and even interior decorating, there are vast libraries of information about tools and materials. But training in art has been primarily an oral tradition, resulting in little information actually reaching the printed page. All the available books on artists' materials would take up only about twelve inches of shelf space. In addition, many of these books are out of date and out of touch with contemporary painting and drawing and many of the materials discussed are no longer commonly available or applicable.
There is also the implicit belief that dealing with the technical and practical concerns of producing art will inhibit creativity. For how can artists be creative or intuitive if they must think about what they are doing? Nevertheless, any artist producing fine art knows there is no escape from practical considerations. The one consideration that always interferes with creativity, more than any notion of permanency or durability, is the economics of producing artwork. The cost of the tools and materials needed to create a major piece of artwork, not to mention archival framing and storage, can be astronomical for the average artist. The ABC television series "Nightline" devoted thirty minutes to the subject of the impermanency of contemporary art. On this program, Larry Rivers explained that the reason for this problem is that information about contemporary materials "does not seem to be part of art education ... No one told me that tape eats paper and I used it for years." Virtually all institutions, schools, and universities that offer art education programs today provide no formal background in materials and do not require their instructors to have such training.
The need for this kind of training has, however, become increasingly evident, as more and more money is invested in artists' materials and in collecting art. Sotheby's estimates that as much as four hundred billion dollars worth of art is held in private collections, twenty-five billion dollars of which is sold each year. In 1986, Sotheby's sold Out the-Window by Jasper Johns for more than three and a half million dollars, setting a record for a work by a living artist.
Today, too, an artist's creativity is no longer immune from legal attack. One prominent contemporary artist was sued and forced to buy back a painting for one hundred thousand dollars because the center of the work had faded. Another artist was sued because his paintings were turning to dust. He, in tum, sued the manufacturer for inadequate product labeling, which ultimately resulted in the catastrophe.
In addition to financial considerations, potential dangers to artists' health make learning about materials imperative. The National Cancer Institute did a study that linked toxic artists' materials to chronic disease and cancer. It showed that the cancer rate for artists may be two to three times the national average. The New York Times ran a front-page story on the toxicity and the labeling of artists' materials. In response to this, California passed a labeling law that may result in the disappearance of many traditional materials from the marketplace.
The trend toward the disintegration of practical information about artists' materials began with the industrial revolution. This new world had neither time nor patience for the traditional method of transmitting knowledge orally from master to apprentice. Consequently, a great deal of information was lost. The formation of artists' academies helped to recapture some information tem porarily, but the academies eventually disappeared. Colleges and universities with art programs not only did nothing to reverse this trend but fostered it by emphasizing the philosophical and conceptual side of art over the practicalities of producing it. A unique philosophical point of view developed, and it dominates today. It is referred to as "process over product," which means that the artist's concern is mainly with the artistic process rather than with the nature of what is produced. If what is produced happens to fetch a great sum of money and tends to self-destruct rapidly, it is no concern of the creator. This point of view has led to an unparalleled expansion in the art of restoration. Jasper Johns has been quoted as saying, sarcastically, that he could make a better living restoring his work than creating it. Although I feel that producing temporary art forms is perfectly valid, it should be a conscious choice by the creator and should be understood by the collector. Unfortunately, for most artists process over product developed primarily as a justification to spare themselves the embarrassment of saying that they don't know why something is falling apart or what to do about it.
The range and type of materials that are now available bear little resemblance to those available during the eras of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, or even of Max Beckman. Most of the materials and techniques used today have actually been developed since World War II, yet information about them is almost nonexistent. Technical information about a product is often withheld from the user by a manufacturer seeking to conceal "trade secrets." Consequently, a contemporary artist commonly finds it necessary to "reinvent the wheel" every time he or she begins a new project.
After sixteen years of painting, drawing, and taking art classes, I got tired of reinventing the wheel. I would also experience occasional embarrassment upon finding, after several months of research, that if I had read and understood the fine print or asked a manufacturer or someone who knew about the materials in question, I would have saved a great deal of time and expense. It wasn't until I opened my own art supply store and frame shop that I realized just how little I knew. I learned more in the first six months of operating the store than I had in those sixteen previous years.
When I began to gather information for myself by going to conventions and talking to manufacturers and inventors of artists' materials, fellow artists began asking me for trade information. As I shared what new knowledge I had gained, so, too, did many contemporary artists share their "trade secrets" with me. As a result of what I have learned, I began lecturing and training other instructors as well as consulting for contemporary artists. I have continued to do so for more than a decade. And I have discovered that having more knowledge about materials does not inhibit creativity but, on the contrary, liberates. All the knowledge and experience that I have gathered and shared consists of vital information that is basically unavailable elsewhere and yet is of the type that an apprentice would gather if that method of teaching still existed. It is this information that I have compiled in this book, which provides the first comprehensive literature about brushes, contemporary drawing materials, artists' papers, boards, and commer cially prepared artists' paints, and also deals with the subjects of hazardous materials, product labeling, archival framing, and storage. It also includes extensive information on Oriental artists' materials. In addition, vital commonplace artists' terms such as "permanence," "fugitive," "archival," and "nonarchival" are fully explained here for the first time.
A Word About the Use of Brand Names
The decision to use selected brand names as examples in this book emerged from the many lectures and consultations that I have given for more than a decade. Early on, it became obvious to me that discussions rapidly became con fusing, patronizing, and very boring when I avoided brand names. The use of brand names became a helpful reference point with which many people could better understand the materials being discussed. As it turned out, my audiences were not unduly influenced by the examples I gave. People easily saw through any bias I had, and used my opinions as an armature on which to hang their own.
The brand names used in this book were chosen primarily because I feel that they are good examples, for the sake of discussion, not as product endorsements. When I have endorsed or criticized a product, it should be regarded as my subjective opinion. I have yet to hear, read, or state an opinion that is truly objective. There always seems to be another way of looking at things.