Pretty pricey paintings - Pigments

“How much?!”, “I doubt there is even 30 quids worth of paint on that canvas”, “You must be making a FORTUNE”.

These are all things artists the world over will have heard at some point during their career. If you are an artist and you have not heard one of the above yet, just wait. It will come. On the surface these comments from people are rude. They disregard so much about the artist’s process, equipment and experience; all things that have taken time, money, patience and dedication to build the same as ANY career. But then why should they know? Unless you are involved in the process, you wouldn’t know. I don’t know what it takes to be a professional sprinter or cardiac surgeon or pilot.

Most people do not understand the cost of materials, the length of the artistic process, the mistakes made along the way and the supporting administration it takes to run a successful business as an artist and so I thought a few blog posts about it might shed some light for those interested. I will post about each of these over the next couple of weeks, this post will focus on paint.

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You can be creative with literally anything you can get your hands or mind on but for me, I have always drawn or painted. The materials I have used have evolved as I have honed my practise and reflect the level of professionalism I attach to my work. I have come to realise that not all painting stuff is created equal…..

Take oil paints as an example. You choose your brand of paints - different brands have different colour availability, a thicker or looser consistency of paint, pigment levels, binders, fillers etc. Then within the brand they may have different ranges - A professional range and a student range. The student ranges are always always cheaper as they contain less pigment, a lower quality of ingredients and fewer colour options. They are built for experimentation rather than longevity.

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The professional range will be the best quality of ingriedients the brand has to offer and within that there will be several ‘series’. The series of the paint will tell you how much that paint costs based on the pigment used. A series 1 paint will be the cheapest and a series 7 paint will be the most expensive. Currently I use Michael Harding Oil paints which are the best paints I have ever used but this is reflected in the cost of each tube of paint. I shall give you an example: A series 1 40ml (that’s a standard small tube of oil paint) will cost me around £8. A Series 7 of the exact same size costs around £75. That’s £75 people! For a tube of paint that might not even cover a whole canvas!!

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So why the heck is it so expensive for some pigments then? Well, some of the pigments are synthetic or abundant and we can make as much of them as we like in a factory, so they are cheap. Others are actual expensive or scarce things ground down into powder and bound with oil. Take Lapiz lazuli as an example. A beautiful blue colour used for millennia to colour the most royal, regal and hallowed figures in paintings and that even now still scores a 7 in the paint series pricing. More valuable than gold, it was used in Tutankhamun’s death mask. Why do you think in ancient paintings of The Virgin Mary, she was always in blue robes? This was ground Lapiz, the most valuable pigment used for the finest garments. Today, the pigment is still actual Lapiz, ground down and bound with oil. Most of the world’s Lapiz is in mines in Afghanistan; valuable, it means it is worth fighting for and so currently is even more difficult to get hold of.

Chinese Vermillion is another example, made from ground cinnabar the red/orange colour is unparalleled and other synthetic paints cannot match it, especially when you start to fiddle with it and mix it with other colours etc. Genuine Chinese Vermillion still commands a high price as does Lead white (not available to buy in the UK) because of the long process involved in its production.

So the pigment is one part of the paint recipie. What else is inside that affects how much it costs or the quality if the paint? Well, there are loads of things you can shove into a tube of paint to fluff it out so you don’t have to put as much pigment into it. Binders, stabilisers, fillers, extenders etc. The more of these that go in, the less pigment the manufacturers put in and the quality goes down. Its like buying a £1 ready-meal lasagne from a supermarket and comparing it to your mum’s homemade steak mince lasagne. They are both still lasagne, but your mum has put loads of steak, pasta and sauce and nice cheese in hers and the supermarket has put rubbish in theirs to fluff it out. The less rubbish there is in paint, the better paint quality you will have, its simple. The pigments are less likely to fade or for whites to yellow; less likely to crack or crumble. The pigments have been ground to a tiny, even particle size so when they are dispersed in the oil, they flow beautifully and don’t clump together meaning your paint film is even in colour and texture.

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So, if you I are familiar with my work you know how I like to use thick paint applied with a knife and maybe you can start to see how I go through tubes of paint FAST. Using one of the best paints on the planet means my customers will have a painting they will be able to enjoy for years and years to come, but it also goes some way to point to the pricing of artwork. As I have moved my practise from hobbyist to professional artist, I have made sure my equipment and supplies are the best quality I can get my hands on, be it graphite, inks, papers, paints - it doesn’t matter. Its hugely obvious that you get what you pay for and cutting corners on quality and colour just is not an option for me.

Next week I’ll be doing another blog about the artistic process; the time needed, frustrations, catastrophies, joys, mess and total mental blocks that happen when setting out to make a painting.

I feel like I’ve waffled on but if you have a question, let me know and ill be happy to try to answer it.