There’s an urban myth, shockingly propagated by several respectable sources including art historian Michael Bird’s series An Alternative History of Art in 20 Media, that Impressionism couldn’t have happened had oil paints not been available in tubes. The truth is considerably more prosaic, but shows how painting has increasingly embraced technology since the Renaissance.
During the 1700s, a new trade spread around Europe: the artists’ colourman. Although larger workshops had no trouble employing assistants to make fresh oil paint, stretch and prime canvases, and do all the other craft work required to support one or more active painters, smaller workshops and individuals struggled.
Platzer’s The Artist’s Studio (1740-59) shows an assistant using a muller, at the far right, to prepare fresh oil paint for the painters at work in this workshop.
Horemans the Younger’s In the Painter’s Workshop (before 1790) puts the assistant in the centre, although he seems to be distracted by his family.
The artists’ colourman may have been a skilled assistant in a big workshop, then realised that they could make a living from supplying stretched and primed canvases, prepared oil paints, and other materials to several smaller workshops, individuals (who might be wealthy amateurs, perhaps), and eventually even to larger workshops.
One problem they had to solve was how to supply oil paints, which were messy and tended to dry. It had long been known that excluding air from drying oils prevented them from drying, and someone discovered that oil paint would remain fresh and contained when it filled a small bag, such as a pig’s bladder. By the late 1700s, artists’ colourmen throughout Europe were selling oil paints in these bladders.
In Quadrone’s witty Every Opportunity is Good (1878), we are given a detailed look at the painter’s paraphernalia, which includes several paint bladders on the low table behind the easel, and one on the floor. Although this was painted well after the introduction of paint tubes, bladders remained relatively cheap and popular quite late in the 1800s.
Paint bladders transformed oil painting, most of all because they made oil paint portable. No longer was the painter constrained to using oil paints in the studio, but they could take a lightweight easel, small panels or canvases, and some bladders of paint outdoors, and paint en plein air, with the landscape in front of them.
The paint supplied in these bladders was also more consistent: good artists’ colourmen made good, reliable, and consistent paints, so the painter could rely on a trusted supplier rather than having to train their own assistants. Of course there were poor paints supplied by bad colourmen, but the market soon sorted those out.
By the nineteenth century, few painters had workshops and assistants who created their own oil paints. When JMW Turner’s father, who worked as his assistant, died in 1829, he too relied on colourmen for most of his supplies. Turner was an early adopter, sufficiently prosperous to afford all the latest pigments such as chrome yellow. When John Goffe Rand patented what he termed “metal rolls for paint” in 1841, Turner was one of their early users. I should point out that, at the time, paints in tubes weren’t seen as a means of increasing the portability of oil paints, but were sold mostly for their cleanliness and lack of odour.
Adoption of tubes of paint among professional painters at the time was patchy: they were expensive, and required filling equipment which many of the existing colourmen didn’t see was necessary. Oil paint continued to be sold in bladders for several decades afterwards, although newer pigments offered by the larger and more innovative colourmen often only came in tubes. Slightly later, some colourmen utilised another recent invention by John Landis Mason in 1858, the screw-top jar, although those never proved as popular.
By now the old craft-dominated workshops were becoming increasingly rare, replaced by the studio, as shown in John Ferguson Weir’s An Artist’s Studio (1864).
Wooden ‘pochade’ boxes which had been used by painters who worked en plein air could now contain a dozen tubes of oil paint, rather than bladders, as Carl Reichert shows in his witty Der Malerstreit (The Painters’ Dispute) (1903).
They could also be coupled with a lightweight portable easel and canvas-carrier, as in Hans Andersen Brendekilde’s L.A. Ring Paints with Aasum Smedje (1893).
Outdoor painting was inevitably direct, or alla prima; there was no time for painting in layers, other than a thin underdrawing perhaps. Its enthusiastic adoption by the Impressionists led to the next change in technique: the displacement of traditional layers by alla prima, as epitomised in Claude Monet’s Le bateau atelier (The Studio Boat) (1876).
By the end of the nineteenth century, workshops had been replaced by colourmen, who in turn had been replaced by manufacturing industry. Oil paint had first gone into bladders, then into convenient tubes. Craft had been replaced by technology.