Paint-maker, colour connoisseur and owner of Michael Harding Oil Paints, Michael Harding creates superior handmade artists oil paints by referencing the work of the great Old Masters. The result is an outstanding colour palette that’s both beautiful and durable. Michael dropped into Cass Art stores for a revealing talk on how he began making paint, what inspires him and what paints make him tick.
What prompted you to begin making your own paints?
I studied fine art at the Epsom School of Art & Design. It was a traditional college with a great interest in the Old Masters. The tutors had a great understanding of materials and their history. It was actually a statement from a tutor that sparked my interest in making oil paints; “At one time all artists used to make their own oil paints”. I thought, if they can do it so can I!
How did you develop your processes to find the right consistency and aesthetic look?
I was driven by my own particular quest – to understand what enabled Rembrandt to make his whites have such a beautiful sloppy goopy nature. So, the first colour I made was Titanium White with linseed oil and my finished product looked great, until it dried as a very yellow white. I realised that due to its natural colour, the oil tended to come to the surface producing this yellow colour, a problem which was alleviated by adding zinc white. I was in my early twenties and had a wonderful naivety. Things would go wrong, but I learnt quickly and soon found making paint a wonderful and experiential process.
Learning to launch and manage a business is a much steeper learning curve, one I am still learning. Even today my quest continues and I believe I am on the cusp of solving it. I’m currently making my own white pigment by suspending lead over vinegar. Creating Rembrandt quality lead white is like a quest for the Holy Grail!
You say that you “suddenly found yourself in business” and began supplying the Royal College of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. How did you go from creating paint in your home, to selling it to such prestigious institutions?
One morning, sometime in 1982, a letter arrived from James Trimble, a professor at the Royal College of Art. He wanted to meet me and eventually it transpired into him placing a massive order, which was almost too overwhelming to handle. Once the word was out that an artist was hand making oil paint, the same thing happened with the Victoria and Albert Museum. They seemed to be drawn to the fact that I was first and foremost an artist. However, to this day I still I don’t know how they came to know of me, it was mind blowing.
Was there anyone in particular you felt was instrumental in taking the big leap into developing your own company?
I have always been very fortunate to have wonderfully talented people working with me or for me. I can’t thank the guys and gals enough for the passion they have in making and supporting Michael Harding Art Materials. From James Trimble, to the tremendous artist community, they’ve all been instrumental in helping me take that big leap, and they continue to inspire me to strive to provide the very best products for artists.
You are very open to receiving comments from artists. How has this open dialogue contributed to the company’s growth and product improvement?
I think to empathise is a very important component to any business. It’s vital to retain an open dialogue if you want to continue to provide quality products and services. When an artist contacts me I’m flattered that they chose to share their time and thoughts with me. A lot of my conversations with artists revolve around their work and the technical challenges of painting. It’s enjoyable to create products for them or to share ideas and solutions with them. My oil paints all emanate from conversations I’ve had with artists and Old Master experts. Through the years I have received delightful notes and emails about my paints and this is what drives me to continue supplying the very best quality.
Do you still paint yourself?
What are you most proud of through the last few decades of paint-making?
I am a person who always looks ahead. I look at what I want to achieve next more than I look at what I have achieved. I love what I do and I am one of the lucky few that can say that. I just love oil paint!