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The paint tube that revolutionized the world of impressionism

The tin tube with a screw cap forever changed the way artists worked, as it allowed them to get away from their studios to paint outdoors

Impresionismo pictorico
A tin tube with screw cap to store oil paint. This invention revolutionized the art world and brought about impressionism.Dipingi
Montero Glez

If there’s a pictorial style influenced by a scientific method, that style is Impressionism. At first, the pictorial term “Impressionism” was born to redefine itself… that is, to contradict an article written by the critic Louis Leroy in 1874, in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari. It was titled: The Exhibition of the Impressionists. It was a mocking piece that ridiculed the exhibition that had taken place at the independent artists’ salon in Paris, where, among many other works, the painting by Claude MonetImpression, Sunrise — had stood out.

Changing the meaning of the term coined by Leroy, “Impressionism” came to define a pictorial style, where the vibration of light on bodies was experimented with, by using discontinuous brushstrokes. This was a technique that, some time later, in the 20th century, would be called the “gestalt brushstroke,” alluding to Gestalt psychology, a current of modern psychology born to scientifically demonstrate that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

When applied to Impressionist pictorial art, this notion demonstrated how colorful spots — dispersed in appearance — are perceived by our brain in a unitary way. The paintings by the impressionist artists, with their short and exhausted-looking strokes, would open the door to pointillism, a pictorial technique with dots of color that, seen from a certain distance, define bodies and landscapes.

However, Impressionism wouldn’t have existed without the precise moment that led John Goffe Rand, an American painter, to invent the tin paint tube with a screw cap. This revolutionized the world of painting and strengthened the Impressionist movement.

Goffe Rand patented his creation in 1841. Until that year, if a painter took his materials to paint outdoors, he had to carry his pigments in pig bladders. Therefore, the ability to preserve paint in tubes, which kept the colors alive until they were finished, was a stimulus for painters such as Monet, the artist who gave his name to a style without intending to. One fine day, he left his studio ready to capture the light that was reflected in the waters of the port of Le Havre, as dawn rose over the ships. The rest is a matter of luck… and the bad judgment of a painter (Leroy) involved in criticism.

An example of the paint tube that allowed artists to paint outdoors without the colors drying out.
An example of the paint tube that allowed artists to paint outdoors without the colors drying out. Chrysler Museum of Art

But if there’s a scientific figure who contributed to the study of colors and their perception, that figure was physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who published an essential work for the Impressionist painters: Handbook of Physiological Optics (1867). In the scientific book, he stated that color is a perception. As a result, it also became a reference book for artists in the second half of the 19th century.

Von Helmholtz’s optical discovery was that, in our retina, we only combine three colors: red, green and blue. He used this to demonstrate that the other colors originate in the brain. This meant a new way of applying pigments, especially to shadows that were no longer black. Because of these factors, pictorial Impressionism was closely linked to the scientific field. It was a moment in Europe in which the light of science ended up illuminating the world of painting.

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