Michael Harding: The Story Behind The Oil Paint

by Cass Art

The history of colour is an inspired one, and one close to our hearts here at Cass Art. One of the masters in telling its story is Michael Harding, esteemed maker of oil paints used by professional and legendary artists worldwide. Using age old methods, Michael Harding’s fans include Florence Academy of Art, David Hockney and Rupert Alexander. 

Using his own quotes about pigment as well as testimony from some legendary artists, we wanted to refresh your memories as to why his oil paint is used by so many names in the art world.

(Plus we thought it would be a great way to celebrate the release of the brand new Michael Harding colour Amethyst.) 

“If you think of paint as a two-part material, with the oil being the glue that binds the pigment particles into place, it is the pigment that is responsible for delivering the colour.” - Michael Harding

While humans have been making art, we’ve used pigments from unusual sources such as botanical materials, animal waste, insects and molluscs. All these unusual materials have been harvested and traded over long distances. Some colours were costly or impossible to mix with the range of pigments that were available and that's why blues and purples came to be associated with royalty - because  they were just so expensive. For instance Tyrian Purple is a pigment made from the mucus of one of several species of Murex Snail. Michael Harding's oil paints are all handmade from organic materials.

Red pigment Michael Harding 

“Historically painters made pigment by dry grinding with a pestle and mortar until they made a fine powder. In the case of Lapis Lazuli (the original version of Ultramarine Blue) excessive grinding simply causes the blue colour to disappear!” - Michael Harding

Lapis Lazuli was more expensive than gold until two French scientist synthesised it in the 18 century.

"Michael Harding Oils are beautifull honest paints for the beautifully honest act of painting." - Chris Ofili

Michael Harding began making oil colours in 1982, because he wanted to reproduce the intensity of colour that the Old Masters would have used before mass production began in the 1840s. All the Michael Harding oils are handmade and matched by eye rather than machines. They are wholly unique, varying by a tiny degree between each batch. Every tube has an extremely high oil content and responding to popular demand, he has recently started producing a range of special mediums and varnishes to complement his colours. 

“Vermilion in its natural form was called Cinnabar, a granular terra-cotta-like mineral which was gathered by shooting arrows at seams exposed in cliff faces.” - Michael Harding

Many pigments were made using very obscure methods; Indian yellow pigment used to be sourced from the urine of cows that had been fed mango leaves. (Although it’s not manufactured like that anymore...we promise!)

Green Michael Harding 

"The first quality oil paint. Excellent." - David Hockney

The choice of many painting professionals, Michael Harding oil paints have excellent lightfastness. This means they won't discolour over time, and are made for long-lasting paintings set to be on show for many, many years. His wide range of colours inlcudes both contemporary and historical shades, based on research into the Old Masters and his consultation with current artists. 

“The widespread modern use of Ivory Black is now made from charred animal bones, originally from ivory scraps.” - Michael Harding

In the 17th Century Emerald Green was used as an under coat before wallpapering, as it was the cheapest colour to get hold of. Unfortunately it was made from arsenic, and it's purported to have caused poisoning in Napoleon.

Amethyst from Michael Harding

"These are the best oil paints in the world today." - Howard Hodgkin 

High praise from one of the most revered painters of our time - but well-deserved praise it is, too. Michael Harding uses only the finest of the finest pigments, including genuine Afghan lapis lazuli and real Chinese Vermilion, grinds in refined cold-pressed linseed oil (or occasionally safflower oil) to ensure the highest degree of permanence. He also refuses to use fillers, extenders and driers.

"I leave out the rubbish and put in only what should be in a paint so anyone can use them with ease and pleasure." - Michael Harding

Michael ensures his paints are made to be pure. He ultimately wants to make the act of painting even more of a joy. 

Feeling inspired?

Shop our Michael Harding paints, including his new colour Amethyst which is exclusive to Cass Art for a limited time only, here

Our sale is now on - get 10% off Michael Harding when you spend £100. There is also up to 35% off individual Michael Harding tubes. Shop all Michael Harding products here and shop the sale here.

Meet Michael Harding himself at our painting demonstrations in-store this February.

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