(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 contempo­  rary 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  lhe  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  In  addition,  many  of  these  books are out of  date and out of touch with contemporary painting and drawing and many of the materials discussed are no longer commonly available or applicable.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 manu­ facturer 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 mate­  rials 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 exten­ sive 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.

The contents of this site were previously published in "ART HARDWARE" by Steven Saitzyk 1987, © COPYRIGHT 

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