Greed and Indifference as they Effect Art (I’m talking to YOU, North Light Books!)


Book cover, published 2014 by North Light Books.

If this looks a little like a book review — it isn’t.  It’s more like a publisher review.  In general, I like the book except for 1 thing.  I am not inclined to like the publisher for a much more pervasive problem they seem to be perpetuating.

I bought this book because the sample images were of a style I wanted to see more of.   And yes, I do like the style.  She writes clear commentary and instruction to go with some nice step-by-step photos, and she explains why she made design and other choices.  Her subject matter is nostalgic.  Her technique is a simple one.  Her paintings tend to look a lot alike, but that’s true of many books out there.  There are a lot of artists who have settled into painting in a consistent style that works for them — and which they have a market for.   These are important considerations. — and as I said, it’s a style that bears investigation.

My problem, I suppose, is with North Light Books for issuing a new book, that looks good on the outside — but that still offers watercolor beginners the outrageously out-of-date advise of including fugitive paints in their beginner’s palette.  Up until the last couple of decades, there really wasn’t a reliably permanent palette for watercolor artists to choose from.  Of the 30 most popular paints in the 1970s, more than 1/3 were so fugitive that paintings made with them are now faded into oblivion, and viewable only as partial paintings, or as part of the drawer-liner collection that can only be viewed in low-light, lest they continue to bleach out and become invisible art.

But this has changed. There are now more than 300 distinct pigments that paint companies can use to create their expensive little tubes of paint, in a full range of colors, properties, opacities, weights, and toxicity.  Why a publisher would continue to support the use of fugitive paints — which only remain on the shelves because older painters can’t imagine giving them up and trying something new — or toxic paints — is pathetic.  Some of these companies have been in existence for centuries, and I’m sure they have stockpiles of Alizarin Crimson, Vermillion, Naph Red, Arylide Yellows, Van Dyke Brown, Hooker’s Green, madders and lakes ect. somewhere that are worthless as watercolor paints except that experienced painters and teachers continue to call for them in supply lists for beginners.

While those pigments are far less fugitive when encased in oils and plastics, a little water and gum can’t protect them from the ravages of light and heat, and so anything painted with them is destined to fade out or completely vanish in a few short months.

Which is why watercolor is just now beginning to be taken seriously.  Thanks to the many color chemists in the auto and other tech industries, we have pigments that can stand up to sun, artificial light, sea air, desert heat, and even children.

And yet, North Light continues to publish books which not only recommend fugitive paints — they don’t even acknowledge that there is a question about permanence.  This book never says a word about fugitive pigments.

It’s not like this is a new problem — Turner’s watercolors of the vibrant post-Krakatoa skies are lost to the world forever because he insisted on using Alizarin Crimson. (there were already choices, even then!)  Most of his crimson sunsets were already faded into nothing before the museums could fit them into their storage drawers and turn down the lights!  But Turner LIKED painting with Alizarin Crimson.

Well, what if I like painting with coffee, blood, armadillo urine, crushed wode, cocoa, mercury red, lead red, lead white, arsenic, camel dung, crushed cherries, Coca-Cola and smoked black tea?  (all of which are either fugitive, or poisonous, or both by the way, so don’t try it unless fugitive and sick, dead, or insane is your goal.)  Should I write a book and recommend those to beginners?

For hundreds of years, artists painted with the knowledge (or sometimes not) that they risked their lives and sanity by using certain pigments and binders — yet they chose to paint anyway because there were no other choices.  Likewise, they worked with fugitive colors safely wrapped in solutions that helped to preserve their color (oils, egg emulsions and milk proteins, and later plastics.) — And yet, because of the gentle and graceful properties of watercolor, they painted with water knowing those pieces would never survive.  The paper was delicate.  The colors were fugitive.  They simply were not seen as serious art.  We have very few examples, and what has  survived suffers so much that they are tragedies.

Then the 21st Century — and even the last decade of the 20th — saw watercolor join the other painting media as a respectable choice for artworks.

But not if well-meaning (or just greedy) paint companies, publishers, and teachers continue to ignore the brilliant palette available in favor of bad habits, stockpile profits, and lazy publishers.

Shame on North Light Books for perpetuating the problem by allowing their authors to give such ridiculous advice to beginners.  Shame on older artists for clinging to their ignorance and bad habits — and refusing to update their palettes and knowledge.

And shame on me for buying a book, sight-unseen, and supporting the faded past over the brilliant present and future.


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