The Art of Making Paint
By Sarah Love
“Art is a gift,” says John Cogley, owner of DANIEL SMITH Artists’ Materials and Manufacturing. Even though his mother
and sister are artists in the traditional sense, John’s art is manufacturing and the production of artists’ materials.
Six months out of the year John is traveling the world telling the story of how paint is made. In his demonstrations
to artists, they get to actually hold the minerals in their hands, the minerals that become the pigments squeezed from
tubes onto a palette and brushed onto paper where artists create their own story.
The story begins by sourcing for material. Pigment comes from two sources: minerals from all over the world and the laboratory – which would be synthetics like the Quinacridones. Minerals are found in nature. Paints created in the lab are high performance
pigments designed and used in the automobile and other industries.
Recently John was in Tasmania to pick up serpentine, a beautiful luminous green color. The town of the serpentine mine
had a population of 2,000 until it was shut down and now there are five people. “It’s almost like being in Oz when
walking down the road because of the veins of serpentine. ”Mike, the miner, one of the five remaining people, sells
serpentine to sculptors, who turn out to be another source for minerals.
Bruce Wood, DANIEL SMITH’s mineralogist, will fly to South American and the miners there know customers who are sculpting. Leftover chips from carving the piece for the sculptor are perfect for Daniel Smith. The company also buys from sculptors who have ruined or broken pieces or a mark they can’t eliminate. John doesn’t care about the mark. He can get rid of it and keep
the purity of the mineral.
Now that John and Bruce have acquired the minerals, the milling begins. Through a process of different mills, the larger ‘rocks’ are cleaved or milled to the size of a human hair or 40 microns.
Through John’s travels, he has met many watercolor artists who are very smart people and appreciate the qualities of Daniel Smith paints. Sometimes an engineer will sit back and say, you know you could do that (milling) in half an hour using a pneumatic press. John agrees but it would ruin what Daniel Smith wants for the artist – the best vibrancy and light. That’s where the careful milling plays a huge part in maintaining the light refraction index of the crystal.
An example he uses is to take a cup of sugar to a window, move it around and see the colors dance like a prism. It’s
beautiful. Now, take a cup of powdered sugar to the window. It’s deader than a doornail. It’s all about light, John
emphasizes. Artists are painters of light.
After purification and concentration, the pigment goes into mixing vessels with distilled water, used for its continuity and
Gum Arabic. It’s like mixing a cake; it puffs up creating a vortex, putting air into the mixture. Yet, nobody wants to
That’s when the dispersion mill takes over. The dispersion mill is similar to the three-roll mill that Daniel Smith
originally bought in 1976 to create his inks for printers. The mill does two things: Assures that the Gum Arabic goes
around each particle to achieve a uniform refraction so you don’t get hot or cold spots (agglomerates caused by
electrostatic charges of particles) and to de-aerate the paint after mixing. This milling cycle is repeated many times
until the pigment is perfectly dispersed and the artist is assured of buying paint and not air.
Next comes filling the tubes and labeling – creating the final product that the artist buys. Every single station along the
paint’s path from beginning to end is tested and released by one of the two chemists on Daniel Smith’s staff. The
paints are tested for light fastness and light intensity. This information is noted on each tube and on the color chart
brochure freely given to artists.
John was in Manila watching a young art instructor showing her students how to paint a botanical. John was quite
impressed by how carefully she explained each step and why she chose a non-staining paint.“I think when you can
help somebody understand, it’s truly a wonderful thing.”
John, too, does that in his demonstrations. He tells the story from rock to tube. Then shows artists how to read a color chart.
Daniel Smith was the first company to add the color characteristics of each pigment to the tube’s label. This is
leverage for the artist. It’s a phenomenal tool. In his travels, John trains artists and non-artists in four minutes how to read
the chart. Over a cup of coffee, before you begin painting, you can pick your colors and know why you’re using them. If
you don’t want granulation, you pick non-granulating. If you paint in layers, you pick transparent. “The power should be in
the hands of the artist all the time. That’s the best way for them to be creative and to get the result they want.”
The watercolor chart is in a handy brochure that lists 250 colors in chromatic order with an easy to understand legend. John not only enjoys showing artists how to use the chart but also traveling and meeting artists worldwide – and selling Daniel Smith
Fabriano, Italy. The birthplace of Fabriano watercolor paper is transformed into an international art exhibition throughout
the town in museums, libraries, churches and everywhere. Last year there were 600 paintings. This year there are 1,000.
John will be there to enjoy the art and with Daniel Smith paints.
San Diego afterwards for the 6th Annual Plein Air Convention & Expo.
John has been with the company for over 30 years beginning as a computer operator and becoming CEO at the age of 34. He has worked in every department and finds Daniel Smith an amazing company. He has three degrees – botany, business and computer science – which have helped in his continuing ability to grow the company. Daniel Smith paints can be found on every
continent except the Antarctica and that could be a possibility.
All of the people at Daniel Smith are there to help the artists. John definitely enjoys his work. “The most beautiful
thing I love about the art world is it doesn’t create harm. At the end of the day, I sleep really well. There’s beauty in
the product I make and there’s beauty in how the product is used. That’s a really neat circle. It feels good. I like that.”
And so do other artists around the world who love Daniel Smith paints.
Click link to see Daniel Smith's website, www.danielsmith.com.
Return to Home Page