Friday, May 11, 2018


The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.                                                                                                 -- Thomas Merton

This little paint box was used by an Egyptian artist 3,300 years ago:

The artist had seven colors:  blue, white, ochre, hematite (dark red), hematite mixed with calcium carbonate (lighter red), and two grades of charcoal black.  

According to the hieroglyphs on the label, these colors only came in CMYK. (RGB was apparently unavailable with this model.)  I couldn't find the USB port for connecting with the Wacom Cintiq Pro (it must've broken off around 1,000 BCE).  And heaven only knows what obsolete version of animation software this thing ran.

The artist fashioned a little tray to hold water and a brush. The sliding lid is decorated with a genet (a small rodent-like mammal that lived in the papyrus thickets along the ancient Nile).  The artist even painted the lid to look like papyrus. 

What could anyone accomplish with such a primitive tool?  These crummy colors would embarrass any self-respecting kindergarten class today.

According to the RISD Museum (where I found this paint box) "Painters used these same pigments to decorate statuary and the walls of temples and tombs." So here are a few samples:

These artists lacked what we would consider the most fundamental tools necessary for making a  decent picture-- for example, electric light for painting the walls of a dark, underground tomb-- yet they created works of astonishing beauty that still give us chills thousands of years later:

How many works of art created today will evoke a similar response in 3,000 years?

The first two lessons from the tiny paint box are obvious:  

1.) Art does not "progress" the way other human enterprises do; an ancient drawing in a prehistoric cave may be more beautiful and sensitive than a work of art by today's most "advanced" artist. 
2.) Fancy and expensive tools don't necessarily result in a better work of art; a drawing scratched on a prison wall with a bed spring may be artistically superior to the latest Pixar high tech multi-million dollar extravaganza.

Everybody already understands those first two rules.  This week I'd like to propose a third lesson: 
3.) the power latent in a tiny paint box can be unleashed in part by the beliefs of the painter.  
In an age of faith, when true believers devote their talents to honoring their gods (or their pharaohs, or their one true love) that higher purpose sometimes imbues their art with larger and more important qualities.  Today's artists who are motivated by the press reviews for their next gallery opening or their copyright contract or their royalty fees may produce brilliant, complex material. It may be dazzling in its presentation and clever (although often snarky) in its tone.  But that work often seems thinner and more transitory than the work of artists who, working with the humblest tools, are motivated by fear and dread of their gods...  

...or by the radiance of divine bliss...

...or by the soul flying from our body at the hour of our fate.


chris bennett said...

Red, yellow, blue and white. Or ochre, burnt sienna, smalt and lead - pretty much the physical ingredients of a Rembrandt. That's all you need. Tops. But you could make do with animal blood and carbon. The vision within will make a bride of anything.

Nice post David!

Tom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom said...

I really like this post David. Especially your main point, that, “ the power latent in a tiny paint box can be unleashed in part by the beliefs of the painter.”

It remains me of what Eugen Herigel’s teacher told him in his book Zen and the Art of Archery,”.... it's never the bow it’s always the archer.”

The paints may be minimal and humble but the great thing the ancients had and used was Geometry. It defines space and brings form and shape into being.

Peter Rutkowski said...

Thank you.
This post for me has come at just the right time. It has all of what the net once was promised to be. In other (and probably often written) words: your blog, sir, is among the best! Thank you again!

Ibrahim R. Ineke said...

I remember how one time in high school during drawing class i scoffed at the low-quality paints they let us work with; a classmate who was infinitely better at drawing than i was at that time ( but who, i think, never went on to develop that natural aptitude ) then sternly chided me & said something along the lines of 'a real artist can make art with mud if he must.' It's a lesson i have since that moment taken to heart ( i draw mostly with standard office materials ), and tell this boring anecdote whenever i get the chance, to make up as it were for my youthful arrogance. I still can't draw though.

MORAN said...

Egyptian art is awesome.

Aleš said...

Ibrahim wrote :"i draw mostly with standard office materials"

I understand what you are saying but I'd like to point out the problem of lightfastness. A few years ago even a proper manufacturer like Derwent managed to produce charcoal pencils that were like 3/8 on a blue wool scale, completely fugitive. Other companies have paints that still contain rose madder genuine or alizarin crimson. Some manufacturers perform their own tests outside the ASTM standards. I never use standard office materials even tho I don't sell my art, but If I did I would feel ethically responsible to provide long lasting products. Since art ends up on museum walls it all becomes public concern too. Some fans tend to praise Frazetta's greatness by pointing out that he used Mickey Mouse colors. I understand and agree with David's post about artistic quality not being about the paints, but while his "primitive tool" and "crummy colors" still relate to actually proper materials, "standard office materials" could be fugitive junk. Frank lived in different times, the awareness is greater now and It is artist's responsibility to ignore low quality products.

Ibrahim R. Ineke said...

Thanks for the concern.
In my defense- the pigments are crumbling away from Barnett Newman’s works ( not enough binding agent ) and they are in museums.

Most product is low quality product these days; they manufacture for the hobby industry. I remember a mentor ( one as traditional and responsible as they come ) being aghast at finding flecks of different pigments in his colour pencils, sending the whole batch back w/ letter of complaint, then receiving an apology, and a new batch with the same problem.

Paul Sullivan said...

An item like this ancient paint box can become a powerful time machine. Suddenly years disappear and you instantly relate to artists working thousands of years ago—sharing the same basic materials. For some of us, this can be a thrilling experience.

Years ago I was studying Egyptian scrolls at the Museum of Natural History. I noticed the scribes—or the document designers—began their work with extremely thin horizontal guide lines for their hieroglyphics and/or characters. At that time, I was an ad designer and spent most of my time doing comprehensive layouts. Over three thousand years later, I was doing basically the same thing before indicating a line of type in a headline. This may not sound very profound but for a few seconds I could not help but feel a powerful relationship with the past.

Aleš said...

Ibrahim wrote: "Most product is low quality product these days; they manufacture for the hobby industry. I remember a mentor ( one as traditional and responsible as they come ) being aghast at finding flecks of different pigments in his colour pencils, sending the whole batch back w/ letter of complaint, then receiving an apology, and a new batch with the same problem.

If you want good colored pencils try Caran d'Ache's Luminance that conform to ASTM D-6901 which is a standard that establishes quality requirements for composition, performance, and labeling of colored pencils. I mailed the company with various questions a few years back and here is a bit of their reply: "... then, Luminance colours have been exposed 3 months in Arizona desert to determine outdoor lightfastness, and I can assure you that in the same conditions, Prismacolor pencils or colours would have bloomed (and faded). I'm sure that there will be no blooming with Luminance because we have now many tests and samples (leads and appications) dating back to more than 5 years, ...". (bloom = wax bloom, it's a light waxy haze when waxy binder rises to the surface on the drawing over time)

Yes, they might "manufacture for the hobby industry", especially when it comes to colored pencils because that's what most artists buy. There are other factors too, the ASTM standard for pencils was published I think only like 15 years ago and complying with these standards is not mandatory. While oils or watercolors have a respectable tradition, there is no tradition of great artists using colored pencils. Sadly many of the "artists" who promote colored pencil drawing seem to be pensioners tracing photos all day long. And it's difficult to make a lightfast color pencil because leads contain a very low rate of binder (binder (quality and quantity) also prevents the colors from UV). Some companies abandoned their lightfast brands in the past because those products didn't sell.

And there is a question of ethics of manufacturers, they advertise impermanent products, they do not show the lightfastness ratings on the actual product (Derwent publishes these informations only in pdfs) or they don't use industry standards, Faber-Castell for example uses top three star ratings on 102 of the 120 Polychromos while Luminance only has 60 pencils rated LF1 and costs three times more.

If you were not talking about pencils specifically, I think you can find good products out there that will last for a long time. Artists have to become aware of these problems and let the manufacturers know that substandard products won't sell. (I still rely on manufacturers LF ratings tho, which could also not be true for various reasons, so experienced artists recommend to perform our own lightfastness tests)

Aleš said...

MORAN wrote: Egyptian art is awesome.


On 26 May 1898, W.Rothenstein wrote to Rodin and sent him a small Egyptian cat. Rodin saw the gift as an archetype, part of his artistic heritage: "What greatness, what truth", said Rodin. "It is not just a cat, it is the whole race of cats. There is the eternity of a living archetype in the way the limbs are attached, in the artistry of the back, in the cut of the head". - A quote from Rodin (Royal Academy of Arts, London 2006)

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

When I was studying animation about a decade ago, I worshiped the work of Glen Keane, and desperately wanted to emulate him. He drew with incredibly soft pencils, eg. 10B. I tried such pencils and couldn't handle them, but still I went with the softest I could get away with, 4B, sometimes 6B. My animation supplier always tried to convince me to buy harder pencils, to no avail. I loved rough drawings.

I also was cheap, and bought student animation paper instead of professional series. I figured it might crease a bit more but it'll do the trick. And it worked fine.

Years later, I had left behind animation as a career goal but was returning to it for one project. I was now living on a different continent so had to purchase new supplies. Then, I happened to see a documentary on anime director Miyazaki, in which he said that beginning artists should always draw with HB pencils. That you have to graduate towards being able to use something softer. I also learned that he only drew with Mitsubishu Uni Hi-Uni pencils, and thén learned that Glen Keane had been using that same brand for the past few years (of course at 10B).

So I ordered some Uni Hi-Uni HB pencils. And I compared them with office supply HB pencils, and the 4B and 6B I had used in the past. Without fail, my Uni Hi-Uni HB drawings would be MUCH better than any of the others. Was it a natural quality of the lead, or was that quality subtly making me draw more attentively? I don't know.

I also bought professional animation paper for the first time. I was stunned. Here was paper of such perfectly crafted weight that not only did it crease much less, it "rolled" in my hand by gravity instead of force, and I was able to judge my animation which much greater ease and accuracy. (For the uninitiated, "rolling" is when an animator holds a sheet of paper in between each pair of fingers, then "rolls" those sheets back and forth to see the movement between 5 frames)

I guess this is to say that there is great value (even artistry?) in well-crafted tools. Though there is certainly also greatness in simplicity when in the hands of a great artist.

On a completely different note, Belgian comic legend William Vance passed away today. David, are you familiar with his work? I always thought he was brilliant, even if his figures could be kind of stiff, and some of his work is rushed. I particularly love his paintings, many of which you can see in the video here:

Aleš said...

We lost a comic artist and an animator a few days ago too: Link. Miki Muster was very famous over here, everyone grew up reading his comics and watching his animated commercials on TV.

Nick Jainschigg said...

Mr. Apatoff--I hadn't realized you were on the RISD campus or I'd have offered you lunch! I'm a professor in the illustration department and quite a few of us are fans of your blog and books. If you stop by again, we'd love to see you.

Mark Valdez said...

Enjoyed all the posts I particularly like the amazing ancient Egyptian artwork which has stood the test of time and looks terrific to this day and is still inspiring. Thanks again.