A lasting impression 19th-century Charleston man revolutionized visual arts with paint tubes

Metal tubes of Old Holland Classic Oilcolor at the Artist and Craftsman Supply.

"Without colors in tubes, there would be no Cezanne, no Monet, no Pissarro, and no Impressionism."

Pierre-Auguste Renoir in a letter to his son

By BILL THOMPSON || Special to The Post and Courier

America's Impressionist painters may have played a historical second fiddle to their pioneering French predecessors, but they could claim at least one countryman who helped make the Gallic art revolution possible. That, and a great deal more.

John Goffe Rand (1801-1873), a Charleston resident then living in London, today is credited with inventing and patenting the first collapsible artist's paint tube (1841). While this may sound inconsequential at first blush, consider: the best paint storage medium of the era was a pig's "bladder" sealed with string, a container prone to rupture and leakage. An artist had to prick the bladder to access a stream of paint but had a real problem plugging the hole afterward.

Rand's invention was made of tin and sealed tightly with a screw cap, which meant it could be repeatedly opened and closed. This not only gave paint a lengthy shelf life but had the advantages of being leak-proof and easily transportable, meaning artists were no longer confined to the studio and could work out in the world in natural light.

This, by itself, was revolutionary. But add to this development the fact that these tubes soon helped add many new colors to the artist's palette. Until the tube, (oil) paint pigments were few in color, took time to produce, and dried out. Rand enabled the Impressionists, French and American, as well as all artists, to utilize a dazzling new spectrum.

"If you look at the history of painting, and paints have been a hobby of mine for 12 years or so, there were a half dozen available to prehistoric peoples, while artists in Greek and Roman times had perhaps two dozen colors," says Perry Hurt, associate conservator at the North Carolina Museum of Art and curator of the 2006-07 exhibition "Revolution in Paint."

"By the time of the Renaissance, talking strictly about oil paint, there were only about 30 pigments that would work in oils. There were other pigments but they were not suitable for oil paint. Previous to the Renaissance, color was the most important thing, and bright colors were expensive. Part of the appreciation of art before then was the expense of the materials."

But with the coming of the Renaissance, suddenly the materials were of less importance than the skill of the artist, which in effect impeded the development of new pigments, Hurt notes.

"Da Vinci and Michelangelo made extraordinary images that were lifelike on an almost scientific level, and color was now secondary."

Yet the pursuit of new hues continued.

Rand was born in 1801 in Bedford, N.H. Having worked as an apprentice to a cabinet maker in his youth, Rand soon found his forte in portraiture, according to the Archives of American Art. He was discovered and mentored by inventor Samuel F.B. Morse (of Morse Code fame) before moving to Boston and in 1828 establishing his own studio. Rand was visiting Charleston when he chanced to meet Lavinia Brainerd, whom he later married. After a time in the Holy City, the couple traveled to London, where Rand painted portraits of the nobility, and where fate laid a fresh brushstroke.

Oil painting, which first emerged in the 15th century, had to make do with comparatively limited colors. Only two or three significant pigments had been developed in the three centuries between the Renaissance and Rand's time, says Hurt, who has written about the artist-investor for Smithsonian magazine.

Of the 30 or so pigments that were available at the beginning of the 19th century, only half of these were frequently used. Expense, instability, toxic properties and other drawbacks effectively reduced artists to some 15 reliable pigments. These not only suffered short shelf lives, but would dry out quickly if exposed to air.

Until Rand revolutionized matters, mid-19th century, artists (or their apprentices) continued the laborious process of grinding their own pigments to be mixed with oil for each day's use. They also tended to grind one color at a time, painting in "zones" on a canvas with that single color for efficiency's sake, then repeating the process with a new color.

"Of course, that's the way everyone painted," Hurt says. "Since no one had been able to do it otherwise, it was just an accepted fact."

Then came the bladder, which may have referred to the shape and function of the container, not the actual organ, the best alternative to package, transport and store small quantities of paint for short periods of time.

"The use of the bladder coincides very strongly with the earliest paint salesmen, colormen, as they were called, in Europe. More and more people started making pigments to sell to the artists. It's quite a varied history. About the 18th century, we started having people making a living selling materials to artists, including paints. And the bladder coincides with that, giving some sort of shelf life, a week to 10 days if you were lucky, to the paints."

Other storage media were devised from time to time, including a glass syringe, but it was Rand's invention that truly liberated artists. More, it led more or less directly to the modern packaging of everything in resealable tubes, from food to toothpaste. Though Hurt estimates that in the beginning, a tube added as much as a quarter or a third to the cost of a paint, a significant sum to many artists, its adoption was almost immediate.

"The invention of the tube is monumental," says Hurt. "In many ways, it is undervalued for its impact on painting in general. The Impressionists were reacting to lots of things but one of the main tenets was a pseudo-scientific approach to capturing the real atmospheric quality (of a scene) as quickly as possible, so the main tenet was to go outside to paint and capture a moment."

Though art critics of the period were confused by and critical of the Impressionists' methods and work, many a traditionalist artist was privately appreciative of the new array of hues that was becoming available. Some of the principal academic painters of the day, including many devoted to technique and an absolute reproduction of reality, loved these new pigments, especially green ones, which earlier had been very hard to make.

As mentioned in the text for "Revolution in Paint," more than 20 intense pigments of green, yellow, red, blue and orange appeared between 1800 and 1870, a growth accelerated by Rand's breakthrough.

"In the small exhibit I did in 2006, I was really juxtaposing the traditional academic painters with the Impressionists," says Hurt. "In large part, Impressionism was a knee-jerk reaction to everything the traditional painters were doing: what they were doing, where they were doing and how they were doing it."

Today's painters may or may not be familiar with Rand, but there's no doubt that they are appreciative of the invention, of a convenience and latitude unknown to another generation.

"The thought that I would spend much of my painting day creating the paint by grinding the pigments into oil is barely tolerable as, though I love the thought of control over my materials and starting from scratch, I would lose the creative day to technical matters," says local artist Lese Corrigan, owner of the Corrigan Gallery. "The availability of paint in tubes that last for years is a relief. I have dried paint in cans and it skins over and dries out quickly therefore being practical only when using very large amounts in one painting session. A debt of gratitude is owed to Mr. Rand."

Little is known of Rand today. Hurt says that apart from his portraits, Rand seems to have filled a secondary capacity in the studios of London in which he worked, largely as a paint-maker. Although he patented his invention with the United States Patent Office in 1841, and later patented several improvements, neither his original tube or its refinements earned him much in the way of financial reward.

Upon returning to the United States, the Rands settled on Long Island, N.Y., where he continued working as a portrait painter until his death in 1873.