A painter from SF was in my studio recently to talk about his possible return to oil painting.  

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Usually painters want to know about solvents but he was interested in why few of my paint tubes had caps.  I explained oil paints skin over and seal the tube.  I just poke it with a tool to unseal.  When I showed him artists’ oil colors that were more than 30 years old still flowing and so smooth, he lamented how much his acrylic paints cost and how fast the paints dry up. 

Surprised - I hadn’t thought of that. That may be a true advantage for oil colors — longevity in tubes.  (There is no solvent in artists’ oil colors.)  I rely on having those weird, unusual or “character” colors for a long time.  After rummaging around in the “is this painting finished?” stack, maybe I find a color pattern I like from a few years ago. I can go to a paint drawer and find the colors again.

One unanticipated reward from my selling my biz was a cache of oil paints made between 1987 and 2004 by national and international art materials manufacturers that had been left behind after various product tests to see how painters like different brands. We set up our focus groups, for example, so each person painted with samples of Ultramarine blue oil colors from major manufacturers plus titanium white, one other color and various surfaces.  Package labels were covered so no brand loyalty.  While I am often in studios, I rarely watch a group of painters work.  I remember Nathan Oliveira quoting Francis Bacon who may have been quoting Michelangelo:  “I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do.”  I did adjust a few formulae after too many painters like the feel of another brand better.

Working about five years with the oldest paints from Winsor, Holbein, Rowney, Blockx, Old Holland and GACCo., oil colors formulated to have soft, buttery textures; to let down easily with a painting knife and mix easily with mediums have aged into mostly smoother and denser paints. Winsor paints from the 90s, in particular, are perfectly smooth and luscious. Rembrandt colors threw off way too much oil so if you buy and use fresh.

The stiffer paints like Old Holland have not aged with grace. Tubes including cadmium red and titanium white hardened in the tube in less than ten years. Ultramarine blue is OK.  Theo de Beer, owner of Old Holland in the early 90’s, made stiff paints similar to the British brand Roberson started in the early 19thC. Those paints were formulated to create impasto. Impasto techniques evolved with Impressionism after artists’ oil colors were packaged in tubes. Tubed paints are thicker than hand-ground or small batch milled paints. Also impasto techniques make matte paintings which was a most popular look during the 20thC. Oil colors made without enough binder, tend to crack over time. While a few earth colors harden rather quickly in the tube, only oil colors made with too little binder tend to harden in the tubes.

If you prefer stiff paints, don’t store them for long. Dried paint inside the tube ruins the paint. Throw away old paint tubes that looks chunky.

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If you prefer to make your favorite artists’ oil color stiffer, add about 10% by volume calcium carbonate (whiting) or as an alternative, consider super fine glimmer powder which you can get from Art Guerra Pigment & Paint. Add pigment 10% at a time, not to exceed 30% without adding more binder.