Pigments sourced from organic and mineral sources are the same as those used for thousands of years by ancient, medieval, and Renaissance painters. Until the 19th century, the making of colors in workshops was kept a secret, and pigments were very precious. The pigment ultramarine, for instance, was the finest and most expensive blue used by Renaissance painters, made by grinding the mineral lapis lazuli into a powder.
Synthetic pigments today are made to serve the paint industry and the needs of the professional artist play a minor role. Artists’ material manufacturers purchase most of their pigments from companies that mass-produce them for other uses.
With a growing community of representational artists leveling up their craft, the demand for high-quality nontoxic art supplies is increasing.
Companies such as Gamblin, Golden, and Natural Pigments became the first art supply manufacturers who were dedicated to catering to the artist who is looking for pure, nontoxic high-quality colors that perform to their unique specifications.
I recently had a phone interview with George O’Hanlon, painter and owner of Natural Pigments about how he came to start Natural Pigments, and why he felt the need to create his own oil colors.
I had the pleasure of meeting George several years ago when I attended the Natural Pigments Best Practices Painting Workshop. George was generous with his information then and was just as generous during our phone conversation. Here’s a look into the story of George O’Hanlon and the development of his company, Natural Pigments.
George developed a passion for representational art at a young age. He spent most of his childhood between California and Mexico. His mother was Mexican, and she would occasionally take him to visit Mexico. In the 60s and 70s, representational art wasn’t taught at any of the educational institutions in the United States. Instead, institutions in the United States focused on abstract and conceptual art. In Mexico, however, representational methods were still valued and taught.
At 18 years old, George — wanting to study representational art — decided to move to Mexico to study at the workshop of David Siqueiros, one of the top muralists in Mexico alongside Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Rufino Tamayo. Upon the completion of his studies, he returned to the United States in the hopes of building a career-making representational art.
Even though he spent so much time and effort attempting to master representational art, there still wasn’t a market for it in the United States. Having to adapt, he began a career in graphic design and started a very successful ad agency. A chemical company in Asia bought his ad agency and hired him as Vice President over one of their divisions. As Vice President of the division, he was taught chemistry. He didn’t know it at the time, but later he would combine his love of art and his newfound knowledge of chemistry into a love of artist materials.
Working in the field of advertising and marketing also brought about a deepening interest in cognitive psychology, and this, in turn, led him to an academic paper on the semiotics of iconography.
One paper on the semiotics of iconography blew him away. He was always interested in Renaissance art and didn’t really like other types of art. This paper, however, gave him a new perspective on Christian Medieval Iconography. He finally had a reason to leave advertising, and he moved to Russia to study icon painting. He searched out experts in Russian iconography and found himself discussing the intricacies of the art with academia in the conservation departments of museums. It wasn’t long, however, before he was introduced to two people that would change his life forever.
One of these people was George’s teacher Alexander Grigoriev. His teacher introduced him to natural minerals that were used as pigments in artist paints. George found that paint made with natural minerals behaved in a very different manner than synthetic, modern pigments. It was at this point that his love of art and his knowledge of chemistry were put to the test. He had to find a scientific explanation as to why these paints behaved differently than modern pigments. He began to experiment with the paints and discovered that differences in particle size and the absence of additives contributed to the different qualities of the paint.
Contemporary paint makers grind the pigment to small particles in an attempt to increase the potential tinting strength of the pigment, and they also use additives such as stabilizers to prevent the separation of oil and pigment that may occur in the paint tube. George found that small particle size and additives were destroying not only the subtle characteristics of artists’ pigments but also the potential intimacy that artists could have with the natural qualities of their materials since small particle size and stabilizers cause all paints to behave similarly.
The other person George met was the woman he would later marry, Tatiana Zaytseva. Tatiana was also passionate about Russian icons, and in 2002, the two started a non-profit organization called Iconofile. Iconofile educated artists in the United States about the art of iconography. They held workshops all over the United States and provided tours to Russia, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt so people could see the context in which iconography was situated. It was through these workshops that George and Tatiana also introduced artists to natural minerals as pigments.
Artists were stunned at experiencing the different behavioral qualities of paint when made from natural minerals. George and Tatiana decided to start making paint for artists and established Natural Pigments in 2003.
George’s first attempt to make oil paint with natural minerals, however, was a disaster. It became very difficult to store the paints in a tube. He added additives to stabilize the mixture of oil and pigment but lost the beloved characteristics that made natural mineral paint different.
Undeterred, George decided to do some research. He went to England to research archives of paint manufacturers in the 19th century. He found that paint companies in the 19th century did not use additives but were still able to effectively store paints. With this new information, he returned home, experimented, and developed a system that produces the paints that Natural Pigments provides today.
As I talked to George, I began to gather from him a philosophy centered around the artist developing intimacy with their materials and a respect for their craft. The artist should produce art with an informed understanding of their materials not only for the purposes of longevity but also out of respect for their patron and the artwork itself.
George told me that the craft of painting was lost as the practice of art shifted from mere craft to fine art. When art gained such prestige that it became part of the nobility’s education, it was not expected for the nobility to grind their own paints or prepare their own surfaces. So an industry developed to supply paints and materials for the noble lover of art. This market was called amatour which is a word that originated from Louis XIV’s court and meant “lover of art.”
With the advent of this industry, however, individual artists began to lose intimacy with their materials since they didn’t have to make them anymore.
For George this development is unusual because it’s the opposite in other arts: “There’s no chef that has any kind of reputation that would buy a sauce or a stock in a store… They would [instead] make all of their dishes from fresh ingredients. Visual artists are the only ones that buy paint. They don’t make their paint.”
George, however, wants to help fill this gap. He works with conservators to stay updated with the latest conservation science and willingly shares this information with artists who are interested; he wants artists to be informed consumer of paints; he wants artists to regain that intimate relationship with their materials:
“One of the goals that I set off with Natural Pigments was to emulate the color man of the 19th century [like] Winsor and Newton: they were colormen that supplied artists, and they had relationships with artists, and that’s what I wanted to have, and that’s what we’ve been building towards. We like to know the artists that we’re working with, and we’re inspired in the sense that a lot of the products that I’ve developed were directly inspired by what artists wanted or needed… and it’s just fabulous to be able to do that.”
To give an example of just how passionate George is about artist materials and making sure artists have the most up-to-date information about their materials: information was just released in the past several years that the testing conducted for the lightfastness of pigments in the 1980s may have exhibited a bias in its results. A mixture of zinc white and titanium white appeared to have maintained the lightfastness of some pigments that are otherwise fugitive. When a pigment is added to just titanium white or lead white, the lightfastness results are not the same.
One could ask, “Why not just use a mixture of zinc and titanium white to maintain lightfastness?” The problem with this is that zinc white has been deemed detrimental to the paint film and many fine art supply companies are beginning to remove it from their product line.
Only three companies have stepped up to address these lightfastness concerns: Gamblin, Golden, and Natural Pigments. Natural Pigments is going so far as to do their own preliminary testing. George wants artists to have accurate information and to make informed decisions when they are creating. He seems to understand that the act of creating is a sacred act and should be approached with the care it deserves. He approaches his own art of color making in this way, and it is clear to see that the philosophy that I perceive to be central to Natural Pigments is backed up with action.
Natural Pigments provides drawing, gilding materials, and many different painting products including casein, encaustic, fresco, oil, tempera, and watercolor.
Rublev is the product line that includes oil colors, mediums, and watercolors. They are named after the Russian icon painter, Andrei Rublev. Rublev changed the way medieval iconography was approached, and I can’t help but think the same about Rublev paints and the contemporary color maker. George provides paints with no additives and with different particle sizes so the artist can experience what made the old master’s work possess a subtlety otherwise lost and relatively stand the test of time.
I had the pleasure of attending the Painting Best Practices Workshop in 2015. I saved my money and took a bus from Ohio to Tennessee in the hopes of learning all I could to craft a painting from bottom to top. My expectations were surpassed. George spoke for hours with nonstop information. It was clear that he had devoted himself passionately to this endeavor and that he had gained a level of mastery in this subject that left me speechless after every session. After every day’s session was over, I walked around Chattanooga aimlessly in an attempt to absorb the massive amount of information that was just given to me.
At the end of the final session, everyone went on their way except for me. My bus didn’t leave until late that night and it was still the afternoon. George and Tatiana asked me to accompany them for the rest of the day until my bus ride came. We went to an artist’s studio and ate dinner over another artist’s home before I was dropped off at the bus stop.
I still remember that day vividly like I would a work of art. That day reminds me that mastery has not only to do with artist technique and materials but must also include generosity of spirit and kind-heartedness. That day, I felt I was among family. Years later, as I talked to George to write this article, I was taken aback by how cheerful, knowledgeable, and generous he was: I was reminded of his mastery.
Georges’s passion has led him to deeply investigate the intricacies of artist materials and develop a profound respect for his craft in the process; he was able to persevere through any difficulties that arose on his journey, and he keeps a generous spirit as his journey continues forward. I call myself fortunate that my journey coincides with his.
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