For over 30 years, George O’Hanlon has been making paint and investigating natural pigments and mediums, keen to find the best practices and formulations to pass on to professional artists. His quest has taken him around the world, where he’s discovered fellow artists and enthusiasts just as passionate about the art of painting and paint making as he is.
Early in his quest, George fell in love. And now he and his wife, Tatiana Zaytseva, support artists from around the world via their California-based business, Natural Pigments.
From Iconography to Natural Pigments
George met Tatiana in Russia during his travels in the late 1990s to learn more about iconography. At the time, George ran his own advertising agency, where, after he’d graduated college in the 1970s, he worked as an illustrator—the only viable career option for representational artists.
George’s interest in painting icons came about after he’d been sent a paper on medieval art, an era of art that he’d never really liked or understood. When he learned more about that art, he found iconography a fascinating way of looking at humanity and felt compelled to travel to Russia and learn directly from icon painters and experts.
Together with Tatiana, he founded the nonprofit organization Iconofile to teach artists everything the couple had learned about the icon painting tradition. The couple’s work with Iconofile paved the way for their company Natural Pigments.
Icon painters primarily use egg tempera. George found that the traditional materials used by the icon painters behaved differently from the modern materials he was familiar with. At the time, George painted with oils, so out of curiosity, he began making his own oil paints and also noticed how different they were from the commercial paints that he had been using. He didn’t quite understand why and wanted to know more.
In the past, George had worked for a Japanese chemical corporation. So using his knowledge of chemistry, he started investigating the paint that he made. He found only a few research papers that focused on paint rheology (paint behavior). When he discovered the old masters’ painting processes, the revelation had a huge impact on him. “I found that the way they made their paint changed the behavior of the paint,” he said.
The old masters created great art not only because of their painting techniques and exquisite handling of the paint, but also because they made their own paint and had a thorough understanding of their tools and materials.
George believes that the old masters unlocked the alchemy of painting by making their own paints—an opportunity lost to most artists today.
Assembling Versus Creating Paintings
A lot of artists today don’t understand paint. They rely on commercial paint from a tube. George sees this as a major disadvantage for them. He likens those artists to chefs picking up a couple of jars of sauce and ingredients at the supermarket to make a meal. They’re not cooking a meal; they’re assembling it. “Imagine a chef not knowing how to prepare a sauce from scratch, or how to prepare a dish from the basic ingredients,” he said.
Artists today aren’t experimenting in paint making, as they did in the past, because they haven’t learned how to make paint in college, and they can’t readily access the paint-making materials.
Tatiana says that, essentially, every time an artist buys a tube of paint, that artist is buying into someone else’s idea of that paint color and composition. Commercial paint companies control the experimentation, which is often limited to market demand.
The Paint-Making Tradition
In the past, parents paid masters to teach their children as apprentices. The apprentices immersed themselves in their masters’ art and observed the other artists in the workshops. The children started their apprenticeships between the ages of 8 and 12, becoming masters when they turned 18.
Artists today don’t have that immersive experience. George sees many college-educated artists struggling because they’ve mainly been taught art theory, and they haven’t had a chance to observe the practical side of creating art.
Remarkable as it sounds, George has met artists with 40-year careers who don’t understand the basics of painting. He stresses that these aren’t bad artists. The gap in their practical art training has meant that they’ve had to teach themselves the basics and seek help from experts like George.
Artists in the past had incredible observational skills. They didn’t have the science to understand why paint behaved in a particular way, but they learned by using their senses and by practical application, George said. In his Ghent Altarpiece, for instance, Jan van Eyck painted the figures close to Mary using two layers of the same pigment. George explained that each paint layer had different particle sizes. Van Eyck, as a master of optics, knew those pigments would give him the opacity that he wanted.
Similarly, experts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington recently analyzed their Vermeer paintings and found that the artist used as many as four different yellow pigments to paint the woman’s shimmering gold sleeve in “A Lady Writing.”
In the 1950s, science caught up with what old masters like van Eyck had observed some 500 years before: the way light scatters when reflected on different mediums.
George explained that in 1952, scientists took a thin three-layer paint sample from the deep royal blue robe of the Virgin Mary in van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece. Surprisingly, van Eyck was able to obtain the deep blue by using three very thin layers of paint. On analyzing the paint layers, scientists found that the order of the layers was unusual. He altered the final color of the blue paint layers with a thin layer of ultramarine tempera paint—not oil—yet another remarkable feature of the painting. (Ultramarine pigment tends to fade with oil paint, but not with tempera paint.) Van Eyck could only have obtained the deep royal blue of Mary’s robe by using certain pigments in a specific order.
Art That Endures
“Paintings do change over time. It would be remarkable that anything 500 years old would look exactly the way it did when it was first painted,” George said.
The American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) International sets the standards for materials in America. Around four years ago, scientists made a startling discovery that might put some paintings, mainly from the 20th century onward, in jeopardy. They found that some of the paints that had been determined to be lightfast may actually fade.
“It’s actually a crisis that nobody’s really talking about,” he said.
As a result of this discovery, Natural Pigments is one of few companies that have retested all of its colors for lightfastness. Natural Pigments found issues with two of its paints, both modern formulations that contradicted the ASTM lightfastness standards. The company believes that the rest of its paints are lightfast because they use a lot of traditional materials, which artists have tried and tested for centuries.
“The Ghent Altarpiece [painted in the 15th century] actually didn’t need any intervention until the middle of the 20th century, which is amazing,” George said.
The Chemistry of Paint Making
At Natural Pigments, George and Tatiana teach professional artists how to make paint, and they ensure that all the materials are available for purchase. They also sell prepared paints and mediums, but they insist that when artists understand the chemistry of paint, it changes their artwork.
“Painting is a composite structure; it’s not just the paint,” Tatiana explained. Each part of the painting—the canvas and the varnish, to name a couple—interacts with one another in a beneficial or detrimental way.
George promotes using the simplest of paint formulas, so then artists can see how elements interact with each other. When artists know each element in their paint, because they’ve made it themselves, they have more control over the painting process.
The O’Hanlons look to the past to make paints, but also with an eye to the future. George is constantly learning. He submits a sample of each pigment for scientific analysis to see the particle size and distribution, both of which are helpful to artists. Pigments of the same chemical composition behave differently in the same medium due to their distinct particle size and shape. They may also age differently due to these physical properties. For instance, Natural Pigments stocks five yellow ochers from different parts of the world. Each one interacts with the medium (oil or egg, for instance) in a different way and flows differently. The company website details the properties of each pigment and relevant information about how to use them.
A Valuable Yet Misunderstood Pigment
“There’s lots of good things that were done traditionally that still have value today,” George said. Equally, just because a material isn’t used today doesn’t mean it has no value. Some of the 500-year-old paintings that we see in museums today have lasted because the artists used the color lead white. Up until the beginning of the 20th century, artists used lead white pigment in spite of its toxicity. Recently, researchers found that lead white preserves oil paint. “Lead white is the only substance that actually works chemically with oil to strengthen the paint film and prevent it from deteriorating faster,” he said.
Tatiana said that professional artists at art conferences usually take a step back from Natural Pigments’ bench when they see lead white paint. The toxicity of lead white has been widely misunderstood. George explained that people working in industrial processes suffered the most from lead poisoning. In the United States, professional artists can use lead in their paint; as with any toxic substance, they simply need to take simple precautions when working with it.
Artists sing the praises of Natural Pigments’ lead white. Paul G., also an analytical chemist, states in his review: “In oils, it has a delicacy where titanium white is brutal. Lead white’s ability to mix sensibly with other colors is phenomenal, leading to superior paintings where color has depth as well as subtlety—titanium white just washes colors out, leaving a pasty look to everything.”
Upholding a British Tradition
George wants to resurrect the British tradition of the colorman, who worked with artists to make the best materials for them. He and Tatiana happily spend hours with artists on the phone or in their studio to ensure they get the best paint for their needs. Many college-taught artists use the same materials as their teachers. But the O’Hanlons believe that there’s no one size that fits all. Artists should use paints suitable to their unique sensibilities. The couple recently worked with a Brooklyn, New York, artist who’d tried many white paints but none were quite right. After a few hours in his studio, the couple made a special white pigment for him.
The old masters took great care in their painting process. They wrote treatises detailing just how pigments behaved and what mediums were best for certain situations, such as when preserving a painting. The O’Hanlons bring that same care to Natural Pigments, relaying their discoveries for professional artists to use for centuries to come.
To find out more about Natural Pigments, visit NaturalPigments.com