How They Begin: Tools of the Trade

Paint, paper, and brush seem like a simple enough formula for producing art. Not quite so, any serious artist will tell you. Artists give their materials far more thought than one might suspect.

While Educomp in Vineyard Haven and daRosa’s in Oak Bluffs, and Granite’s in Edgartown are the go-to local sources for art supplies, many Island artists travel far and wide, by Internet, phone, or ferry, to find their preferred materials.

West Tisbury painter Rez Williams, celebrated for his brilliantly colored, bold Impressionist paintings of New Bedford’s working boats, uses New York’s Central Art Supply, which he calls the best art store in the country, or Utrecht, which has stores in New York, Boston and Providence. Both have websites.

Mr. Williams lived in New York at one time and confesses that he still likes to visit the city to pick up art supplies and to see art. He points out that before the invention of oil paint in tubes led to plein-air painting and the Impressionist movement, artists had to mix their own pigments and oil. Some still do.

Mr. Williams defines oil paint as the suspension of pigments, which have facets, in oils to create color. Light must be able to enter the paint to create its luminosity and brilliance. Oil paint comes in a variety of grades. Student-grade paints have more extender or vehicle (oil) and produce colors that are not as saturated, according to Mr. Williams. The more vehicle in the mix the further the pigment dilutes.

Mr. Williams prefers painting on canvas. “I like the touch,” he says. “It has a nice feel.”

He has experimented with linen, cotton duck, and tent canvas (an olive green material available at Army surplus stores) and settled on cotton duck as his preferred painting surface.

“Cotton duck doesn’t bog with humidity,” he explains. “People have this idea that linen is more permanent and luxurious, but it sags with humidity.”

A sagging canvas is not correctible, and Mr. Williams finds linen more trouble than it’s worth. Dealers talk about linen as a selling point, probably because it’s more expensive than cotton duck. He stretches his own canvases, then applies two coats of acrylic gesso.

Pig’s hair is Mr. Williams’ choice for brushes, along with one-inch flat house painting brushes from the hardware store that he thinks produce a nice edge.

Once Mr. Williams has finished painting, he applies a varnish-like coat of Liquin, made from damar crystals, stand (thickened) linseed oil, and gum turpentine. He used to make his own varnish, until the quality of turpentine deteriorated. “They’ve cut down all the yellow pines,” he says. “Now they’re making it from the stumps.”

Painter Hermine Hull, who exhibits at her West Tisbury gallery Hermine Merel Smith, finds nothing more exciting than hunting out supplies. “I could spend hours in art stores,” she says, often going to Johnson Brothers or Utrecht in Boston.

She says it is important to see colors before you buy them; she explains: Each brand of oil paint differs. One may be so thick you can’t get it out of the tub, while another dribbles oil. “Once you find something you like, you can go to a catalog,” she says. “I love, love, Old Holland. The colors are unbelievable. I come home with a new paint color and just want to play around with it and see what I can do.”

Unlike Mr. Williams, Ms. Hull hates stretching canvas and doesn’t like its texture. Instead she paints on birch boards purchased from Cottle’s. “Birch is smooth, clear and has a nice, tight grain,” she says. “The color is warm and neutral.

“I’m not that interested in the preliminary stuff, making stretchers, priming –– I did it all in art school.”

Brushes determine the kind of marks you can make, and Ms. Hull calls them “sensual experiences.”

She uses Winsor & Newton synthetic brushes made in England. “They have nice white bristles, beautiful red handles and they do what I want them to do,” she says, explaining that since she doesn’t like to clean them, she tends to buy new ones several times a year.

Artist Allen Whiting’s materials are not very complicated. He works with 12 basic colors, purchased from the Italian Art Store in Morristown, N.J. He met the owner, Claude Bernard, when he visited the Davis House Gallery in Mr.Whiting’s home. “He came in, bought a painting, and we talked,” Mr. Whiting says. “That was 20 years ago

Mr. Whiting paints primarily on canvas, sometimes attaching it to a board, although he has also used plywood. He applies six or seven coats of Gesso to seal the canvas, sanding the first couple of coats.

“I’m a little rough on my tools,” he says. While he completes his paintings with hog-hair brushes, he also buys white synthetic brushes at Educomp to lay out the images on the canvas.

“You like to pick out a personal thing, hold it up and turn it every which way,” he says. “I beat them till they’re dead. They’re like Bic razors. They work well until they don’t.”

Like Mr. Williams Mr. Whiting applies Liquin, an alkyd medium, as a final, protective coat.

“It’s not recommended, but I like it. It’s like a lens,” Mr. Whiting says. “It works the same way water does on a beach pebble, making the dull areas pop out and return to the way they looked originally.”