Williamsburg makes some of the best tube paints (in my opinion). And finally, after years of my badgering, Zecchi in Florence is selling some of Williamsburg’s better colors.
Their cadmium colors are as good as anything I ever ground myself. Their cadmium red light, for example, is the best warm vermilion substitute I’ve found. It reminds me of the older, real vermilion pigments I learned to grind paint with. Their other cadmiums (red medium, yellow light and medium, and orange) are all staples on my palette. They have beautiful hues and, because of their great tinting strength, one tube will last a long time. Cheaper paints usually have a lot of filler in them, so you go through the tubes much quicker as changing a color will require much more paint.
Their cerulean is beautiful -not Old Holland beautiful, but half the price. Their cobalt blue is also good, though it seems hard to botch a cobalt blue, I’ve never used a bad one.
Not all of their colors are great. For ochres I prefer Old Holland’s golden ochre or Zecchi’s own Roman ocher. I also find the Williamsburg ultramarine totally unusable, Old Holland’s ultramarine dark is much, much better.
Williamsburg’s ivory black is the closest to hand-ground that I have found, though it is still a touch lighter. They sell a flake white too, but hand-ground lead white is really essential to good studio painting.
In 2010 Williamsburg was bought by Golden, the acrylic paint company, hopefully nothing will change.
A short post on brushes.
Cornelissen in London makes the best bristle brushes I’ve ever owned. They finally have an online store which is great, as getting to central London is a pain and their staff aren’t particularly friendly (I got in trouble there once for checking unfamiliar turpentine brands for mineral spirits and the clerk thought I was getting high). The series 44 are the ones I use. They are more expensive than other brands but they are built like tanks and last forever. Mine usually get worn down to a triangle shape after years of use.
For sables, Zecchi has the best quality brushes I’ve found. The red-handled ‘cat-tongue’ sables are very useful for drawing with your paint. They are also pricey (though cheaper than much of the competition), but will last a long time if properly looked after.
I get asked a lot about brush care. I clean mine about once a week with soap and cold water. In the meantime I keep them in the freezer at night so they wont dry out.
Bristle brushes I wrap individually with a little piece of paper towel to pull out the water and keep the shape. Sables I leave a bit of soap in and make a point with the hairs so they dry with a sharp tip.
Here are a couple of sketches from my plein air workshop near Volterra. The first I’m happy with, the second is awful.
San Giusto, Volterra. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
San Giusto, Volterra. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
The sketch above isn’t my fault. Really. Every month I make dozens of sketches and I usually buy large quantities of the gessoed boards from Zecchi. A few months back I got a batch from them where their subcontractor had messed up the proportions of the gesso and there wasn’t enough glue. The boards are too absorbent and are utterly unusable. Somehow they got mixed up into the next batch of boards I ordered and every now and then I find I’m trying to paint on one. It is impossible for me to pull anything decent off with one of these boards. I’ve had to throw away the ten or so paintings from the times I’ve insisted on trying.
On our workshops we give the students a full painting kit. It makes it easier for those who have to travel, but the reason we do it is really that we got tired of students arriving with unusable materials. Rubens couldn’t paint with some of the set-ups these people arrived with. Often they don’t have the experience to recognize that it’s their materials that are the problem. Since we started giving out full kits, we’ve seen a marked improvement in the students paintings. They are able to focus on learning to paint.
Good quality painting materials don’t have to be expensive either. Here in Florence we find the Zecchi brand is fine for paints (for dark ultramarine we use Old Holland). In the US, Blue Ridge and M. Graham both make excellent paint for reasonable prices. Often ‘student-grade’ paints are so full of fillers that to change one color you have to add a ton of the other one. This means the cost savings is gone when you calculate how much paint you actually have to use.
Good boards are cheap. Ray Mar is a good supplier in the US, Zecchi in Europe (when they get them right), or make your own. I use a cigar-box clipped to a $50 easel for most of my sketches. Brushes are really important but they don’t have to be expensive and will last for years if looked after properly. There is no excuse to skimp on materials if you care about painting.
At the end of the day, painting is hard enough without fighting your materials.
Zecchi is now selling the medium I recommend pre-mixed to save painters the trouble of making their own. The recipe is the usual: 1 part Canada balsam cut with 1 part turpentine, and then that mixture is added to 2 parts Zecchi sun-thickened linseed oil.art. The item number is 3882 ” Medium Antichi Maestri” and the price is €12 for a 125ml bottle and €22,50 euro for the 250ml bottle. (They ship abroad too, check out their website for more details).
I tried to get them to name it after Theodore de Mayerne or to call it the “Cecilian medium” as Charles Cecil developed a similar version (adding mastic varnish) based on his reading of de Mayerne’s manuscript on 17th century painting techniques, but no dice.
‘Old Master Medium’ is so trite.
My stretcher bars on the raw linen.
My canvas suitcase a week later.
My trustworthy Julian half-box.
I’ll be in Myanmar (Burma) for the next month, painting plein air landscapes so no updates for a while. I don’t think I’ll have any internet access.
We’ve been given a house to use near Bagan, and the place looks incredible. I’ll be traveling with a small group of plein air painters with whom I’ve been doing this sort of thing for years. We get given a house somewhere warm during the Italian winter and we stay a month or two and paint the surrounding area. Past trips have included India, Morocco, Kenya, Puglia and Mexico.
In this case we will be having a charity exhibition when we get back with the paintings. Our host runs charitable organizations in Myanmar and the proceeds will go to these charities.