We are shut in, isolated, bored at times. I am not a TV binge watcher but that doesn’t mean I can’t get sucked down the occasional rabbit hole of content.
The other day I discovered a series of YouTube lectures from the National Gallery in London. It was great. I watched a talk on three Caravaggios, then another on Paul Cezanne. Next up was a talk on a Rembrandt self-portrait, before a fabulous lecture on J.M.W. Turner’s brilliant painting, “The Fighting Temeraire.” Of course, I am going to watch anything on Turner. He’s one of my absolute favorites.
Then it was on to the National’s “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh (although as lecturer Colin Wiggins said, do we really need to identify the artist?).
The talk was good and offered a lot of good information for those who are not familiar with Van Gogh’s life. But I latched on to a nugget that Wiggins said. Van Gogh’s ability to paint “en plein air” — outdoors — was aided by an unsung hero of the art world — indeed of life in general — John Goffe Rand.
It’s not just artists who owe a debt to Rand. When you brush your teeth in the morning Rand is there when you squeeze the toothpaste onto the brush.
Rand, a portrait painter in Boston, London and New York, invented the collapsible tube. This allowed oil paint to stay fresh. Prior to his invention in 1841, artists had no way to keep their paints from drying out. The best artists could do was to store the paint in a pig’s bladder, which would be punctured to squeeze the paint out. However, there was no way to adequately plug the hole, so it was a short-term fix.
Impressionist Jean Renoir said, “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.”
Rand was born in Bedford, New Hampshire in 1801 and died in Roslyn, New York in 1873. He was apprenticed as a furniture painter and took up portraiture in 1825. He studied under portraitist Samuel F.B. Morse (yes, the same man who, in middle age, invented the single wire telegraph system and Morse code).
It was in 1834, after a stint in New York, that Rand moved to London where he invented the screw-top compressible zinc paint tube in 1841. He moved back to New York in 1840 but made other visits to London in the ’40s, before establishing himself in New York from 1948 on where Rand established himself as a portraitist.
Art historian Michael Bird, in an article on christies.com, writes that by 1841 artists did not mix their own paints, instead buying them from colorists. With the new zinc tubes, an artist could paint from nature in oils instead of being limited to watercolors.
The Impressionists, with its emphasis on drawing from nature, seized upon the opportunities that the tubed paint offered them. They were also able to expand the traditional color palette. Perry Hurt, in Smithsonian Magazine, writes, “Since oil paints were time-consuming to produce and quick to dry out, artists prepared only a few colors to work with during a painting session and would fill in just one area of a canvas at a time (such as a blue sky or red dress).”
Hurt notes that Rand’s tubes enabled the Impressionists to take advantage of new pigments — such as chrome yellow and emerald green — that had been invented by industrial chemists in the 19th century. With the full rainbow of colors from tubes on their palettes, the Impressionists could record a fleeting moment in its entirety.
“Don’t paint bit by bit,” Camille Pissarro wrote, “but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere.”
Rand’s tubes were similar to syringes. When chemist William Winsor, who founded the Winsor & Newton art materials company with artist Henry Newton, heard about it, he sought the patent as Winsor & Newton were the only company producing moist watercolors. Once the patent was secured, Winsor added the screw cap which completed the process.
Nowadays, tubes are ubiquitous for every artist. Oils are still in metal tubes, but acrylics, like toothpaste, keep fresh in plastic. It is hard to imagine a time when artists would have to spend hours mixing their own color priors to beginning their creations.
Rand didn’t profit from his invention, but we artists owe him much. His simple invention literally opened up painting.
Sometimes one must admit defeat and Perry Hurt has already written the perfect ending to the story — “Some revolutions began with the squeeze of a trigger; others required just the squeeze.”