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Tube Paint: A Revolution

In 1841, painter John Goffe Rand was struck with a brilliant idea. Rather than spend hours mixing and re-creating paint colors in a studio, he put oil paint in tin tubes with a cap. And the art world went boom.

This seemingly innocuous concept was revolutionary. Before tube paint, mixing powders, oils, and pigment was half the battle of producing a piece. Artists had been traditionally tethered to the studio, unable to bring their materials far without restocking ingredients for paint. Painters were part chemists, and the laboratories were exactly portable.

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Claude Monet Painting at the Edge of the Wood by John Singer Sargent (1885)

Jean Auguste Renoir was not kidding when he said that “Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism.” For Renoir and his fellow Impressionists, a major aspect of their philosophy was painting outdoors in order to better capture light. One can’t very well revolutionize the way of depicting light when one is stuck inside a studio. So the impressionists took their tubes of paint and ditched studios for fields, gardens and beaches. This freedom would not have been possible if Monet had needed to rush back home every 20 minutes to grind up pigment for a fresh batch of pink oil paint.

Gustav Courbet, a major precursor to the impressionists, was one of the first to take advantage of the portable possibilities of tube paint. In 1854, he produced The Meeting where he depicts himself meeting a patron on a country road. You’ll note his backpack contains a curled up canvas — the audience is meant to understand that he’s on his way to paint somewhere outdoors. With tube paint! It was all very cutting edge.

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To be fair, it wan’t just the paint in the tubes. By the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Pigments could be made en masse in a lab, rather than from crushed up plants from half a world away. Paint was cheaper, more vivid and artists didn’t have to mix it all themselves, there was child labor in factories for that now.

Paint tubes aren’t super sexy but its amazing how this profoundly they effected art history. If a measly paint tube can bring about Impressionism, it’s fun to imagine what technology like 3D printing or artificial intelligence will produce.

*The featured image: Cliff Walk at Pourville by Claude Monet (1882) is a perfect example of the kind of work that would have been impossible without paint tubes!

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