ART / Hands-on experience: A new medium is the message from Winsor & Newton. Iain Gale reports on the launch of the Oilbar and asks three artists to try it out

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS Della Pittura of 1435 Leon Battista Alberti wrote 'Painting contains a divine force which . . . makes the dead seem almost alive'. Since the earliest times artists have been searching for the means to command that force, the key to unlock the secret of the perfect painting and offer the most direct means by which to bridge the gap between creative concept and finished work.

Of course, as any artist will tell you, no such key has ever existed. That is no reason, however, why the myth should not still be a marketable product today. A new art material, the Oilbar, a stick of oil paint manufactured by Winsor and Newton, is being marketed as 'an innovative and dynamic dimension . . . opening up new and challenging opportunities for artistic experimentation and discovery'.

It is not the first time that innovation in artists' materials has produced such insistent enthusiasm. Vasari directed the painter in pursuit of perfection to the apparently miraculous 'discovery' of oil paint in the late 15th century (it had in fact been used in decoration since antiquity). In assessing its importance though, he was not far off the mark. The unique properties of oil have guaranteed its place as the pre-eminent medium for serious painting ever since.

The artist is free to choose the size and composition of his brush: sable, squirrel, pony, ox, camel, hog, goat and badger, and its shape. Different shapes of brush give different effects, from the angular or broad mark of the Flat, to the small stroke of the Round for detailed work and the expressive combination of the two found in the Filbert.

Understandably, given its predominance in Western art, there is a tendency to regard the brushstroke as sacred. It was just such a devotion that Roy Lichtenstein parodied in his Yellow and Red Brushstroke of 1966 - a highly magnified stroke executed in the very unpainterly Pop Art style. Looked at closely, individual brushstrokes become nothing more than a jumble of coloured lines; it is only when we step back to view the whole image, be it by Greuze or Kandinsky, that they can be, as if by magic, interpreted. Although in talented hands an instrument capable of sublime imagery, the brush itself is only a tool which the artist spends his life attempting to master, but whose limitations he realises he will never wholly conquer.

Artists, however, are by nature individualists and every great master has introduced his own innovations to basic methodology. Van Gogh mixed extra wax with his colours and used a palette knife to create the unprecedented areas of heavy impasto - further emphasised this century in the work of Frank Auerbach and, more recently, Therese Oulton. Francis Bacon, in an interview with David Sylvester, admitted having used house dust in his portrait of Eric Hall in the Tate Gallery. Yves Klein used nude women as paintbrushes in his infamous Anthropometries. In every such experiment the artist expresses his desire to get closer to the substance of the paint itself.

But even the airbrush beloved of Pop Art painters carries in its nozzle the implication of an intermediary control over the paint. To somehow be able to pick up the paint itself and apply it direct would seem to be ideal. Degas understood this, rediscovering pastel in the 1870s and reinterpreting it in pictures of a scale and subject matter (nudes and genre scenes), normally associated with oils, to achieve expressive, spontaneous images which emphasised creative process rather than finish. Other artists have gone to further extremes. It is thought that in his later works Titian dabbed paint on with his fingers, while one of Turner's pupils recalls having seen his master mix a pot of yellow paint with his hands and apply it with great sweeping strokes of the palm.

It is in the history of 20th century abstraction that such direct contact with paint has been most emphasised. Max Ernst bored holes in a bucket, filled it with paint and swung it over a canvas, while in the work of Jackson Pollock the impetus attained new heights. As early as 1937 Pollock, along with Mexican painter Alfaro Siqueiros, was creating images by dripping household emulsion paint. His contemporary Axel Horn remembers: 'We threw it and dripped it, we sprayed it, we chopped it with axes, we burnt it, just to see what would happen'. Pollock later refined the method by throwing his paint into the air, either by means of a stick or straight from the can. The only intervening medium before it hit the canvas was the air itself. For Clement Greenberg this new technique enabled Pollock to 'get a different edge . . . a brush stroke can have a cutting edge that goes into deep space when you don't want it to'.

In throwing his paint Pollock appeared to have liberated himself from the slavery of the brush. A natural development can be seen in the later paintings of Jules Olitski and Bram Bogart, whose picture surfaces, made up of thick dough-like rolls of paint squeezed directly from the tube, themselves become the subjects.

All of these 20th century examples however, are abstract, carrying the implicit criticism of 'lack of technical facility'. What means of escape then might there be for the figurative painter? Although tame, compared with such extremes, the idea of putting oil paint in a stick might offer a plausible answer. In fact such sticks have been in use in America since the 1960s. In contemporary Britain, despite his own emphasis on the importance of the brushstroke, Howard Hodgkin uses simliar materials to block in his paintings. However, such products have always been notoriously imperfect, being either too waxy or too dry. It is in its consistency, described as 'buttery', that the manufacturers of the Oilbar claim that their product has made the breakthrough. The inventor, Suzanne Starr, herself a Baltimore artist, explains how it came about:

'I loved the quality of paint but I became less and less interested in the process of actually painting . . . The concept of being able to draw with paint was appealing to me. But the paint sticks I was using were not much like paint and I began to think about how to improve it . . . What I wanted was a rich, creamy and heavily pigmented paint crayon. I wanted to feel as if I was really using artist oils . . . so I began my own tedious and unsystematic course of formulation.'

The result is now on sale in the shops. Whether, as the manufacturers claim, it really will produce 'the unbroken link between creative expression, colour and ground' for a new generation of artists will only be discovered in the course of time. Meanwhile, the views of three established painters might provide some clues.

Here three eminent artists, all of whom have worked with traditional oil paints, test-drive the new Oilbar, with varying degrees of success and approval

PETER BLAKE

Peter Blake was born in Kent in 1932. He studied at the Royal College of Art from 1953 to 1956 and created early Pop Art paintings using collage and acrylic paints. In 1975 he was a founder member of the Brotherhood of Ruralists. He had a retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1983.

I enjoyed playing around with them. They were interesting to play with but they wouldn't be much real use to me. They might work better if put into a harder, finer stick like charcoal. I had a board in the studio and drew a black line on it and filled it in with the creamy flesh colour. They might be a good way of drawing and underpainting in which things would happen that you wouldn't expect. I experimented with building up the paint and I think in that respect they would be fine for an artist like Howard Hodgkin or Adrian Berg. In fact about ten years ago Hodgkin did introduce me to oil paint sticks-but they were more like a wax stick. These would probably be very good for students. They'd be fine for experimentation, but not for established artists. I think they'd be good in a new situation - in the jungle for instance. Maybe things will change with them, but I don't think they would ever affect my style other than in a side trip - it's been consistent for 40 years. You'd have to invent a new kind of art to use them for.

SIR ROGER DE GREY

Sir Roger de Grey has been the President of the Royal Academy since 1984. He was born in Buckinghamshire in 1918 and studied at Chelsea from 1936-1939 and 1946-1947.

I can't quite see the point of them. They'd be very difficult to mix. Painting isn't just about picking up a tube of paint and squeezing it neat on to the canvas. It's much more than that. It's an experiment with the different colours you can achieve - it takes time and patience. I can't pretend I have given them an extensive trial. I opened the box and was uninterested. There may be some artists who take them up and make something original of them but I can't think that to the ordinary person they'd be any use.

FREDERICK GORE

Frederick Gore was born in 1913. He studied at Westminster and the Slade. His work can be seen in Southampton Art Gallery and elsewhere.

They're quite good. They'd be ideal for any sort of mural. You could lay on with it and work very quickly. I tried them on paper. They provide a semi-matt surface and produce something between pastel and oil paint. One of the difficulties of using a brush is never being able to get a proper line. I have always thought that something like an oil pencil would be a good invention. Something with a little hole drilled through it up which the paint would flow would be ideal. Of course, whatever medium you use alters your style. I used to use dry pastel a lot. And then there are acrylics. But they don't produce a coagulated surface like oil paints. With the Oilbar you can get it pretty thick without it being crusty or lumpy. When I was in America I bought, some rather expensive Canadian sticks of oil pastel of a harder nature - their colours were so beautiful. I took them to a New Orleans Jazz festival but they were a terrible mistake. Working white into them to get the tones one saw was extremely difficult. I like the picture to be in a key of colour which suits one's vision and with oil paint you can mix in white in a jiffy on a palette. These would never replace oil painting but they are a useful addition to it.

(Photograph omitted)

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