Paint consists of two parts - the pigment to give
colour to the paint, and the binder to hold the pigment
and to stick the paint securely to the surface. Pigment
is a fine powder that is suspended in the binder.
European artists have traditionally used oil paint. Oil
paint is a slow drying paint made by mixing the pigments
with oil, linseed oil being the most widely used. It dries
with a hard film, and the brightness of the colours is protected.
Oil paints are usually opaque and traditionally are used
Canvas is a heavy woven fabric made of flax or cotton.
Its surface is typically prepared for painting by priming
it with a surfacing material called a ground. The standard
canvas is linen, made of flax, and it is very strong and
long lasting. A less expensive alternative to linen is heavy
cotton duck. Cotton is somewhat less durable than linen,
because it is more prone to absorb dampness, but still an
acceptable material for fine art.
Traditional Aboriginal Paint
Paint used traditionally by Aboriginal artists consisted
of a pigment, such as ochre or a coloured organic material,
and a binder. Ochre is a
very finely textured natural rock coloured by iron oxide.
Aboriginal artists grind this material and mix it with water
to make a paint. To ensure the paint sticks to a surface
(whether it is a traditional surface such as rock, bark
or a person's skin, or a more contemporary material such
as canvas or paper), the artist needs to use a glue (or
"binder" as it is called).
Traditionally binders such as spinifex gum or other materials
were used. Nowadays the binder most commonly used is professional
artist's acrylic binder that is tough, flexible and stable.
The ochre paintings by Tiwi artists that we sell have acrylic
binder to ensure that the ochre does not chip off or flake.
However, in places the ochre or other pigment can be quite
thick, and then it is possible (even with acrylic binder)
for the paint to crack or chip if the painting is rolled
up. For this reason the paintings we sell are delivered
in flat packages (not rolled). Other Tiwi artists use gouache,
a modern opaque water-based paint similar to water-colour.
Acrylic Paint and Binder
Acrylic paint and acrylic binder are now widely used by
many Aboriginal artists. Acrylic paint is made by suspending
or dispersing pigment in a synthetic acrylic resin. This
resin is made by the polymerization of acrylic and methacrylic
acid. It acts as a binder, or glue, in holding the pigment
and bonding it to the surface.
Research into commercial production of a synthetic medium
began in the 1920s due to the wish of artists in Latin America,
mainly Mexico, to paint large outdoor murals. They needed
to find a paint that dried quickly and that would resist
wind, rain, and high humidity. They were not produced commercially
until 1928 and have undergone many changes since they were
first manufactured. By the mid-1950s, researchers in Mexico
and the United States had developed a way to mix resins
with water, which created a paint that was almost identical
to oil paint, yet was more durable and dried quickly. Since
their commercial introduction, acrylic paints have become
widely used by many artists.
Acrylic paints are water-based so they are easy to
work with and there is no need for dangerous solvents.
The paint film formed by these paints is very strong
and flexible. The most important characteristic of
acrylics is the fact that they can be used thin and
liquid as watercolour or thick, right out of the tube
like oil paint.
Acrylics dry very quickly, taking from just a few
minutes or up to an hour or so for very thick applications.
Unlike watercolours, which dry lighter than when they
are wet, acrylics dry slightly darker.
Balgo artist applying acrylic
paint using a fine stick
Acrylics are extremely durable. The question about expected
life has been tested repeatedly in laboratory-controlled
exposures to heat and light. Acrylics do not exhibit the
same changes as oils, which suggests that the life of acrylics
is greater than almost all other artists' materials.
For information on handling, storage and cleaning of acrylic
paintings, see our page on Caring
for Acrylic Paintings.