Is Making Paint Right for You?

Centuries ago, making paint was a routine task in the artist’s studio. Either the artist or an assistant would have to mix pigments and binders and prepare paint for the day’s work.

Today, practically every type of paint is available as a ready-to-use product. Ever since the invention of the collapsible metal paint tube in 1841, artists have been able to purchase their colors on demand as a ready-to-use product and store them indefinitely. Even so, some artists still choose to sacrifice convenience and make their own paint in-studio, for a number of reasons:

Tradition: For many centuries, making paint was inseparable from the craft of painting. Through making their own paint, artists can gain experience of what a productive artist’s studio might have been like before manufactured, packaged colors were introduced.

Interest in the materials: Each pigment and vehicle has its own particular characteristics, and there’s no better way to reveal these properties than by watching how the separate materials behave when they combine under a muller and palette knife. When the dry ingredients become saturated with the vehicle, the full depth of color and degree of transparency develop right before your eyes.

Preference for specific qualities: Some artists want to experience paint without the amendments applied to manufactured colors. Properties of paint like ropiness and graininess are less pronounced in manufactured paints, which are adjusted to a more uniform standard. Artists who use homemade paints get to experience the unamended state of each pigment, and can incorporate these characteristics into their art.

Image (left): Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, “Botticelli's Studio” 1922 (detail)

Need for fresh supply: Some paints, especially egg tempera, need to be made fresh unless shelf-stable tube colors are used. Modern dry pigments don’t need to be ground up or milled by the artist for egg tempera. Colorants for tempera can be made into a wet paste for easy handling by mixing with denatured alcohol, then deposited on a palette where egg yolk thinned with water is added as the binder.

For some artists, however, there are reasons why making your own paint might not make sense. These include:

Economy: The cost of raw materials and packaging generally makes homemade paints more expensive than factory-prepared paints. Pigments packaged for the artist’s studio usually come in smaller sizes, naturally at a higher cost per weight than the volumes procured by manufacturers.

Quality of results: The processes used for manufacturing artist’s colors can produce much more refined, homogeneous paints than an artist can achieve by hand. A triple roller mill applies much more force and many more processing revolutions than an artist could ever accomplish with a glass muller. Laboratory-controlled formulation ensures consistent results from every batch. For some artists, manufactured paint may lack the romantic appeal of hand-mulled colors, but they certainly exceed the overall quality, color range, and consistent performance of what would have been produced in the typical “old master” studio.

Time: Making and packaging some types of paint by hand takes a lot of time and labor. The batch size of handmade paint is relatively small, which means mixing up new paint fairly often. Artists should consider whether this would encroach on time that is better spent making art.

Shelf life: Amendments added in laboratory-controlled amounts ensure that manufactured artist’s colors retain good working properties and resist separating or spoilage for a very long time. Homemade paints are generally best used promptly. Some types like egg tempera and casein need to be used up immediately once the medium is combined with pigment.

Formula Complexity: Mixing up a basic acrylic paint is within the capability of most artists, but making high quality acrylic paint requires a number of ingredients that are not easily available to consumers. Manufacturers use additives to control curing rate, reduce lathering, adjust pH and prevent separation, according to formulas that ensure when paint dries, it forms a strong, durable film. While it is possible to mix pigment with acrylic mediums to make a very basic paint, the resulting product may not have the adhesive strength or film integrity necessary for permanent art.

Even if you only try it as an experiment, making your own paint is an experience that can enhance your understanding of materials, provide perspective on the history of painting, and give you a new appreciation for the easy availability and high quality of art materials we have today. Whether making paint in the studio should be a one-time experiment or a regular routine depends on your budget, available time, and how much you can commit to learning and practicing a complex craft. Making paint every day may not be for everyone, but it’s something every painter should try at least once!

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