Art & Design


In Neanderthal times, some hunter must have leaned against a smoky cave wall, noticed he'd left a handprint, and gone on to make more pictures. Then came brushes, paint, canvas, Rembrandt.

Today we launch a mini-series on how art is affected by available technology. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg begins with the link between collapsible tin tubes and some of the world's best-loved paintings.

(Soundbite of movie “Girl With the Pearl Earring”)

Mr. COLIN FIRTH (Actor): (As Johannes Vermeer) This is ruby shellac.

SUSAN STAMBERG: It's one of the most sensuous scenes in filmdom: Vermeer, in his studio in 1665, showing his young Dutch maidservant, the girl with the pearl earring, how to make oil paint.

(Soundbite of movie “Girl With the Pearl Earring”)

Mr. FIRTH: (As Vermeer) This will make verdigris. (Unintelligible)

STAMBERG: Vermeer lifts various hunks of stone, deep green, dark red...

(Soundbite of “Girl With the Pearl Earring”)

Mr. FIRTH: (As Vermeer) Vermilion...

STAMBERG: Then, with a chunky cone-shaped mortar or pestle, pulverizes the stone into a fine powder.

(Soundbite of mortar grinding)

Professor PAUL HAYES TUCKER (Art History, University of Massachusetts): It was an arduous task when you think about grinding down actual bits of rock and the like.

STAMBERG: Art historian Paul Hayes Tucker. Once they had their colored powders, artists through the ages mixed linseed or poppy seed oil into the dry pigment to make a buttery paste of paint.

Okay. You've got your paint. How, in the old days, did you store it? You ready? You put it into pig bladders, little balloony pig parts.

Prof. TUCKER: They were stretched like leather. They weren't much larger, really, than sort of overgrown walnuts.

STAMBERG: National Gallery of Art conservator Anne Hoenigswald says there were some pig problems.

Ms. ANNE HOENIGSWALD (Conservator, National Gallery of Art): They couldn't be completely sealed, but they would sort of tie the top of them. And then they had these little pins that they would use to prick open the bladder and then would have to squeeze the paint out. But the problem was there's still a certain amount of air that gets into them. They were messy. They could break. The oil could pop out.

STAMBERG: Bladder problems even in those days. Well, in 1841, an American portrait painter came to the rescue. John Goffe Rand probably got tired of all those sloppy bladders, so he invented the collapsible tin tube.

Unidentified Male: (Unintelligible) empty tube (unintelligible).

STAMBERG: In Paris, the art supplier Sennelier has samples.


Unidentified Male: Yeah, can do.

STAMBERG: Thank you.

Unidentified Male: It's just souvenir..

STAMBERG: See, here's the tube that he gave me.

JOE PALCA: That's incredible.

STAMBERG: It is incredible. NPR Science Correspondent Joe Palca is here to help us with this part of the story. Hi.


STAMBERG: What's tin?

PALCA: Well, it's an element, it's a metal, and you can make things out of it.

STAMBERG: But why was tin good for paint?

PALCA: Well, the nice thing is that you can roll it out into a thin sheet; and once you bend it, it retains its shape. And so this tube that you've shown me has an opening at the back and you can put paint inside...


PALCA: ...and then crimp the edges down and fold them up and you've got a seal and it's not going anywhere. And the other end, you can put a little cap and then you can squirt out your paint.

STAMBERG: Amazing. Thank you very much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

STAMBERG: NPR's Joe Palca.

The collapsible tin tube helped painters save time and money. They got consistent color from tube to tube. They could work more quickly. But it was not universally admired.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: Some artists, like Renoir for example, apparently didn't like tube paints. And he would hire people to still grind his own pigments.

STAMBERG: Conservator Anne Hoenigswald says tube paint could be too oily. University of Massachusetts Boston art historian Paul Tucker says tube paint could be too thin.

Prof. TUCKER: Van Gogh, for example, often decried what he was getting from his primary paint supplier and wanted the paints often to be ground more coarsely.

STAMBERG: He wanted more texture in his colors. Still, sometimes Van Gogh painted directly out of the tube. Anne Hoenigswald sees evidence in La Mousme, his 1888 portrait of a girl on a wicker chair in a red and blue striped jacket and a blue skirt with dots.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: I think those orange dots that are on her skirt are squeezed straight out of the tube. And he just goes done and sort of pulls it out, and then pulls out, and that's how you get that sort of twisty impasto look because of what he's doing.

STAMBERG: Like a teeny orange chocolate kiss.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: Exactly. It's very much like icing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: By Van Gogh's day, chemists have invented new pigments, often with synthetic materials.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: And that's one of the things that also made 19th century painting as different as it is from other times, and especially it's because you're getting these new colors, these bright, strong new colors.

STAMBERG: So you have brilliant colors and you have tubes, which means you can carry them around. Professor Paul Tucker describes the impact of that little miracle.

Prof. TUCKER: It revolutionized painting to the extent that it obviously allowed for great mobility. You were not tied to a studio. You were not tied to the grinding of pigments.

STAMBERG: You were free to take those paint tubes outside, paint outside. Now to be fair, in the bladder days, artists did work outdoors but they mostly did quick sketches and then they would refine them back in the studio. Pre-tube painters polished their pictures of myths, historic events, battle triumphs to a jewel-like perfection.

But starting in the late 1800s, a group of artists labeled the Impressionists said they would paint something different - reflections of their own time.

Prof. TUCKER: Not to paint those nymphs and satyrs, not to embrace the past, but to be able to show us as grand and as superb in our patent leather boots and our cravats, and to be able to make something of the modern, which is as lasting and as important as anything that had been of the past.

STAMBERG: So outdoors, their tin tubes stuffed with bright colors, they painted strollers in a garden, boaters on the Seine, young people lunching on a riverside. Without colors in tubes, Renoir said there would be no Cezanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism. Was Renoir right?

Some say these masters were so gifted they would have found their genius with or without collapsible tin tubes. But with tubes, they gave us iconic images fashioned of light and grace.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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