A painting has three constituent materials: the pigments, the support, and the binder, which holds the pigments to the support. The painter's craft or technique consists in the correct combination and manipulation of these three elements. "Technique" in reference to painting is often confused with style, which is the personal use of the technique, or the painter's manner. This is a psychological, artistic phellomenon, as little to be taught as a style in drawing, writing poetry, or composing music. The craft alone can be taught, and this craft is called, for the painter, painting technique.
The problems which still today beset painting technique arise from uncertainties which can be explained partly by the imperfection of the materials, and partly by the historical development of the technique. From the beginning, painters have used materials which cannot be completely understood without a thorough grounding in chemistry and related sciences.
In the old days this scientific knowledge did not exist, and even now it exists only among specialists who rarely have anything to do with the practice of the art of painting. Painters of earlier centuries used to be forever writing essays to expound their theories and problems concerning their material, unless they guarded their empirically found knowledge as a secret. An air of secrecy still surrounds painting technique, although it has been investigated scientifically since the end of the last century.
These investigations were for a long time centered around the world-famous Doerner Institute in Munich. It was named after a painter, Max Doerner, whose experimental work first made the problems of the painter known to scientists. After hundreds and thousands of years of uncertainty these unresolved questions could be answered with exactitude for the first time.
All this happened at a time when painting technique had reached its lowest depths. This had come about in the following way: in earlier centuries the apprentices ina master's studio were concerned solely with learning the craft, the only subject that can be taught. They learned to produce the colors from the natural or, sometimes even then, synthetic raw materials, to prepare the appropriate grounds, and to employ the methods needed to achieve durable and vivid results. Thus, they learned intimately the good and bad qualities of their materials. They learned also how to use these materials to carry out the ideas of their masters and of the period, and the most gifted developed new artistic resources from their thorough grounding in the material side of the art.
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, schools, or art academies, began to replace private studios, and at the same time the industrial production of ready-prepared painting materials increased rapidly. The production was not based on any systematic study, but on more or less uncritically adopted recipes, adapted to meet the widest requirements possible. Large sales were now the prime consideration; the quality deteriorated in consequence, and with it technique as well.
This situation is now quite changed. The research we referred to has resulted in the supply of excellent ready-prepared painting materials. It is nevertheless essential to be able to choose from among all the materials available, for there are still some very dubious products on the market.
The demand from technically uneducated painters compels the industry to produce goods of inferior quality. The aim of the following pages is to explain enough about the character of the individual materials to enable the reader to choose them wisely and make appropriate use of them.
There is as yet no universal terminology for painting materials, due to an unfortunate gu If between scientists, who like to be systematic, and painters, who resist the new unmellifluous words, in spite of their exactitude.
Color, both generally and professionally, means two things: the phenomenon of color, and the coloring materia' ready prepared with its binder. Pigment means any colored material before it is in a condition to be used for painting. Painters do not react favorably to any attempts to discipline their vocabulary. However, the correct chemical names for different colors are coming into general use, instead of incomplete technical terms or names derived from outdated origins of the colors. For this reason the chemical and technically correct terms are always given first place in this book. The technically correct name is often helpful in indicating the correct use of the material.
Although we shall go more thoroughly into the properties of the different materials used when we discuss the various techniques of painting, it should be noted at once that the type of binder used always prefixes the reference to prepared paints: "oil color" means coloring material mixed with an oil binder, "watercolor" means that the thick glue binder is to be thinned with water. Thus, even here these terms are not quite consistent, although sufficiently clear for use by those concerned with the techniques.