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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

The alchemist’s profile

by John Zubrzycki, 19 December 2017

Jim Cobb at Chroma factory Mt Kuring-gai, NSW, 2017 by Mark Mohell
Jim Cobb at Chroma factory Mt Kuring-gai, NSW, 2017 by Mark Mohell

Jim Cobb dips his finger into a swirling vat of vivid orange paint and watches as it forms a tear-shaped droplet. State-of-the-art machinery is blending pigments, resins, binders, plasticisers and other components into an aqueous, monochromatic slurry. But recognising the precise point at which the paint is the right quality still relies on human intuition. For this particular batch of artist’s acrylic, the droplet should fall off leaving a conical mark on the finger. Before it is packaged into tubes, Cobb takes a brush and smears the paint on a piece of paper or a canvas. ‘An artist paints with a brush; there’s no testing instrument that can replicate how a paint will behave when applied to a surface like that’, he explains.

Now in his mid-80s, Cobb has been making artist paints for longer than anyone else in Australia. He set up his first workshop in Sydney’s Kings Cross in 1965, scouring nearby chemical factories to get the material he needed to produce acrylics. Today his Chroma factory at Mount Kuring-Gai on Sydney’s northern outskirts employs more than two dozen people. A second factory in Pennsylvania services the American and European markets. His long association with the raw ingredients that are fundamental to transforming a blank canvas into a finished work of art has made him somewhat of a legend in Australian art circles. Not only has he been a paint-maker, he has also mentored and supported a generation of emerging artists. ‘He’s more like an artist than a scientist’, says Sydney painter Euan Macleod. ‘There is this desire in him to play and have fun.’

Cobb’s factory has the feel of a modern-day alchemist’s studio. There are drums of texturisers, sacks of pigments and tanks of acrylic resins waiting to be poured into giant steel blenders. Brushes, scrapers, spatulas, hammers and pliers hang on the paint-splattered walls. Scattered around the workbenches are test strips smeared with watercolours, oils and acrylics. In the building next door, the latest batch of Atelier Interactive is coming off the assembly line, waiting to be packed into boxes. The warehouse is stacked from floor to ceiling with a dazzling inventory of colours and product lines. Some will end up on the fingers of pre-school children discovering for the first time the wonders of mixing blue with yellow. Others will become slurries on the palettes of professional artists painting portraits for the next Archibald Prize.

Cobb studied art under the legendary Hungarian-born artist and teacher Desiderius Orban, whose students included Margo Lewers, Judy Cassab and John Olsen. ‘The people who go to art school really want to be artists, only they realise it’s not going to generate a living, so I briefly became an art teacher’, says Cobb. After the Wyndham education reforms of the early 1960s, art become a matriculation subject in New South Wales, creating a demand not just for teachers but for materials as well. ‘There was a big boom in art. It became the flavour of the day. My girlfriend at the time was more commercially minded than I was and realised there was a possibility there. So I left teaching and started making paint in a very small way. You couldn’t do that today; you have to have a much bigger start-up.’

Braidwood-based painter John R Walker remembers how Cobb would come to Hogarth Technical College where he was studying, to talk about paints and techniques and hand out free samples. ‘He had a lot of feedback loops to see what worked and what didn’t’, says Walker. ‘He was an active patron of late emerging artists and a buyer of a lot of our works. He helped us go from being bright young things in the art world to well-known young things, which is the hardest step to take.’ This direct relationship between paint-maker and artist would become Cobb’s trademark.  Over the years he developed close dialogue with emerging and established artists, teachers and retailers such as Stephen Hesketh, who owned the Tamarisque art store in Sydney’s Surrey Hills. ‘The art scene was much smaller then – there weren’t that many galleries’, Cobb recalls. ‘Stephen knew just about all the artists, so all you had to do was hang around his shop and you would meet them. That way I found out what artists were interested in and how they wanted to use their paint.’

The relationship between painters and their materials is critical when it comes to executing their work. The key thing is trust, notes Macleod. ‘It’s like the dependence you have on your rope if you’re a mountain climber. Painting can be a stressful process. The last thing you need to be thinking of is whether the paint you are using is going to fall off the canvas or crack.’ In 1998 Macleod painted a portrait in oil of Cobb at his factory. Surrounded by jars and drums of colour, Cobb is wearing a paint-splattered T-shirt. With his shock of white hair and slight forward-leaning stoop, he looks as if he is about to step off the canvas to continue his never-ending quest for innovation. Aside from choosing colours that are better suited to skin tones, Macleod says he prepares the same palette for a portrait as he does for a landscape. ‘You need to find that point of intuition, empty yourself of what you know so that painting becomes an intuitive process.’ For him, creating an artwork requires the ability to capture what Lucian Freud refers to as ‘paint as flesh’. ‘If you are doing a landscape you aren’t capturing a frozen moment. Everything is moving – the rock beneath the surface, the molten lava beneath the rock. It’s exactly the same with a person. You need to see what’s beneath the surface, what is under the skin; you don’t want a photo likeness.’

When it comes to portraiture, Cobb prefers oil paints to regular acrylics. ‘Oil paintings usually have more nuance because the paint is applied in a wet state. Acrylic portraits tend to be very hard-edged looking and that might suit the particular style of somebody who handles paint very well, but there’s usually a lack of a sense of space. You could do a Matisse-like painting in acrylic but you couldn’t do a Picasso-like painting as easily’, he says. ‘A lot of painting is about edges. If you don’t want a flat decorative finish, you need to paint in multiple layers to try to get a feeling of dimension and nuance into the painting and that is difficult to do with regular acrylics.’ Cobb singles out Armidale-based painter Barry McCann for praise; his oil portrait of gastronomic duo Maggie Beer and Simon Bryant was an Archibald finalist in 2008. He is also an admirer of Sydney-born artist Tim Storrier, whose portrait of Barry Humphries in character as Sir Les Patterson won the Archibald Packing Room Prize in 2014. Cobb describes the Patterson portrait as an example of Storrier’s skill as a ‘master of gradations not normally seen with acrylics’.

Paint-making has come a long way since prehistoric people gathered ochre, chalk and charcoal and mixed them with animal fat or some other binder to produce the extraordinary cave paintings found in Europe, North America and Australia. Many of the advances in paint technology in the last few centuries have come about by accident. The chemist William Perkin discovered mauve in the 1850s when he was experimenting with coal tar to make a cure for malaria. The experiment didn’t work, but as he was washing out his flasks he found some residue in the bottom of one of ‘a strangely beautiful colour’. He called his discovery ‘Tyrian purple’ after Cleopatra’s royal colour, but then changed it to ‘mauve’ after the French word for the mallow flower.

The materials used in making paints have varied enormously over the centuries – ranging from ground insects to semi-precious stones. In the 1830s William Turner’s brilliant sunsets were achieved using a watercolour known as Indian yellow, made from the urine of cows or buffalos left to graze in the mango orchards of Bihar. The urine was collected in buckets, mixed with clay and rolled into small crumbly balls. Artists mixed the balls with acacia gum to create a luminous and transparent yellow. Another unusual medium was Mummy brown, which was popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The paint was made from the ground and dried flesh of Egyptian mummies. When mixed with a binder it made a rather pasty, thick, dark paint that artists found worked well for shading. Acrylic paint was first used in the 1940s. Because it dried quickly and could be applied to almost any surface, it was used as a house paint. Picasso was one of the first artists to employ commercial house paints to achieve a glossy style that hid brush marks. The first artist acrylics came on the market in the 1950s, but the take-up was slow. For artists used to oil paints, acrylics dried too quickly. It was not until the early 1960s, when Andy Warhol combined the silkscreen process with acrylic paints and showed how it was possible to achieve a sharp and bold clarity, that using acrylics went mainstream.

Cobb’s willingness to experiment has guided his calling as a paint-maker. His latest innovation is a soon-to-be-released range of watercolours. He is tight-lipped about the product, but describes it as ‘revolutionary’: ‘these days it’s not appropriate to be making a watercolour that comes from a rosin that falls out of a tree in Abyssinia. There are chemicals around that serve to make a better product . But technology isn’t always being used in art materials because the art materials industry is very conservative.’ He blames art teachers for the barriers he faces in getting new products accepted. ‘If you are a tenured art professor and your background is painting in oils, how are you going to teach your students to paint with acrylics?’ he asks. ‘The easiest thing to do is tell your students acrylics are worthless.’ Cobb calls the opposition to change a ‘weird contradiction’. ‘You can have avant-garde artists who are very conservative. Artists work in a category – if they are working in oils there are certain things they do; if they are working in acrylics they are used to those; and if they are working in watercolour they are the most conservative group of all.’ Walker agrees that the way artists are trained contributes to that conservatism. ‘Teachers are often 15 to 20 years behind what is available.’ But as he points out, it takes a lot of time for artists to master their medium. ‘It’s like learning to play an instrument like the cello. I’ve now got a repertoire of paints I am used to. I don’t want to have to think too much about what I’m doing with them when I’m painting.’

Though he is proud of the business he has created, Cobb misses spending as much time as he once did going to artists’ studios and galleries, discussing their methods and the uses of paint. ‘The old masters made their paint by hand and used linseed oil, but they weren’t in the hurry that we’re in’, he explains nostalgically. ‘They had a studio and they went from one painting to the next and they put up with the prolonged drying time.’ He sees the lowering of teaching standards and the move to digitisation as having serious implications for our understanding of art. ‘Instead of teaching in the classroom, you take your students down to the pub and tell them that to be an artist you have to unleash your inner yearnings and throw them on the canvas in an abstract, expressionist manner. There’s no actual craftsmanship involved.’ The same is true of seeing art on screens rather than in galleries, he says. ‘If you look only at a digital image of a painting you miss all the nuances, the layering, the textures and the scale. Art viewed in that way loses its meaning.’

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.