Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Keeping Up with Technology

As we rush headlong into a New Year, thoughts turn to buying new things at a discount in after-Christmas sales. Right now, Trina is thinking about buying a new sewing machine for one of her fabric projects. She's finding, though, that buying one is a bit like buying a car. Why is this year's model more expensive, and how is it different from last year's? Suddenly, what should be a simple purchase becomes a research project and, sometimes, an important, life-changing decision right up there with having children or moving to Kathmandu.

We go through this every time we decide to purchase some high-tech item. We recently went through it with the digital video camera and video editing software and, not much longer ago, a digital SLR. You've been through this process. New models with new features don't always have some of the old features you liked, and if you simply prefer the old model anyway, you may find it's no longer available at any price.

Painting, however, doesn't seem to be like that. They haven't stop making Ultramarine Blue to replace it with Bob's Pretty Good Blue. I can still get Ultramarine Blue oil paint. Sure, they came out with a water-miscible version, but no one forces me to use it. They haven't stopped making natural bristle flats. Sure, they invented synthetic bristles, but there's a strong and probably undying demand for the naturals. Nor have they stopped making canvas, even though they've come up with a variety of other surfaces to lay paint on. For whatever reason, the materials are still in the marketplace. They haven't been discontinued, subjected to a close-out sale, or the last of them sold in bulk to Sam's Club and Wal-Mart.

(By the way, I do believe it's important for an artist to try new materials or at least to become knowledgeable in them. You might discover something that allows you to express yourself better. You may find your voice not in traditional soft pastels but in the new PanPastels. "New" isn't always "better," but the possibility is always there.)

Some will argue that formulations change and manufacturers go out of business. True. The Ultramarine Blue you get today is no longer made with lapis lazuli. I don't think Liquitex makes oil paint anymore.* There are other examples, but generally, things don't change much in the lifespan of an artist. New things may be introduced -- acrylic paint has had the most impact -- but you can still get most of the traditional materials.

One place our fascination with the "new" comes into play is in the equipment arena. More cleverly designed pochade boxes, tripods with more levers, umbrellas with new-fangled clamps -- things like this are the painting technophile's meat. I'm guilty of it. But even though I'm always trying new equipment, the materials I use remain essentially the same.

Below is a painting made with traditional materials: oil paint and natural bristle brushes. (I do have to confess, though, that the ground is acrylic. But, since Liquitex invented acrylic gesso in 1955, I can safely say that the stuff was around before I was even born.)

"Fire in the Field"
5x7, oil, en plein air -SOLD

*After posting this, my curiousity got the better of me, and I had to ask Liquitex about their oil paints. I have many painter friends who lament the fact that they can't find them anymore. Liquitex responded, "Liquitex discontinued oil paints in the mid 1990's in order to focus on producing the highest quality acrylics available." Maybe someone out there has a stash of old Liquitex oil paints and is sitting on gold. Who knows?

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