Whats Paint Got to do with it?

I wrote in the footnotes of the Nov 2018 blog ‘Medieval and Renaissance Pigments’ that paint is made of two components – pigment and medium.

It led me to revisit my early enthusiasm for paint, paintings and the wondrous developments we humans have gone through to have the materials we use today. 

It’s my great fortune to have trained and worked at close quarters with paintings, to analyse and understand their makeup which lead me to an appreciation of the industrial developments that inform our lives. Incredibly (to my mind) the changes that have taken place in paint from prehistoric cave paintings to right Now, are very small indeed. In fact the paints that early humans made and used (earth pigments, soot, waxes, etc) are still in use today, a legacy to the inherent qualities of these materials.

Paint is ubiquitous. The story of mankind may be encompassed in the development of the material we use in our art and in our everyday lives, whether we’re on the streets of Grimsby or Kathmandu. You might not think of yourself as an artist but you have paint materials around you 24/7, from the road lines along our pavements (see instagrams 14th & 20th Oct 2018) to the faded and scratched paint on shop doors and windows, to the spaces that you find shelter in. It’s everywhere; perhaps you only notice it if it causes a reaction in you – you like the colour or you don’t? its wet paint!?


In brief – many materials can be used as binders for paint – egg, gum, wax, oil and pva are examples you will know. 

Egg tempera painting reached its zenith in 14th century Italy when the Renaissance kicked in bringing the new development of oil paint.  Oil became the most important paint medium for the next 500 years up to the 20th century.

There are four important classes of synthetic resin used in 20th century paint:- nitrocellulose (pyroxylin); alkyds; polyvinyl acetate (pva); acrylic. Acrylic has been the most important synthetic resin used in artists quality paint, the other mediums have been used principally in house paints…….

…..and that’s been the game changer – House Paints. 

For example, Alkyd resins, developed in 1927 (not commercially available until after WWII) are the standard binder in oil based household paints even today. Alkyd ranges are also produced by artists Colourmen – people who make artists paint are called Colourmen

Frank Stella’s (b. 1936) painting ‘Six Mile Bottom’ (1960, Tate) is a commercial, alkyd- based, aluminium paint. Lots of intense, opaque colour, lots of flow and lots of paint needed to make the 3metres x 2 metres (approx) painting.  

As Picasso discovered at the beginning of the 20th century you could do things with household paints that you couldn’t do with paint made specifically for artists or with egg or with wax or casein or anything.

Think Rothko, think Pollock, think BIG!

More on colour, paints, mediums and artists in future blogs.

In the meantime follow me on Instagram for snapshots of all the above.

Instagram:- luciainlondon123

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About Lucia Scalisi

I am a formally trained and qualified Conservator of Paintings from a Museum background (Victoria & Albert Museum, London). Conservation is carried out to Museum standards with Continuous Professional Development underscoring practice. I work on large scale Conservation projects abroad as well as training, project development & in television - BBC ‘The Repair Shop’. You can follow me on Instagram:- luciainlondon123