As I gain familiarity with available pigments, mediums and tools, I hone in on a family of materials that I consistently replenish. More often than not I purchase my oil paint from online art supply merchants these days. I go to Dick Blick’s or Utrecht’s online store and order my supplies with the presumption that their quality will be the same as that which I’ve already used. The supplies arrive, neatly packaged at my doorstep within a few days. It is an efficient and predictable process towards which I’ve grown quickly complacent. If there is one thing that is fatal to an artist, its complacency, and if there is one thing of greatest importance to he or she, it’s the materials of their craft. With the ease of online shopping I recognize a certain magic has been lost in the value of these delightful tools.
Oil painting is a lusty business and its sensuality comes in part from the complicit smells and textures. The viewer of artwork reads these sensual designs first hand but also responds to the record of the artist’s intimate relationship with those sensations. That relationship begins well before a particular painting, but is initiated when those materials are procured and the prospect of their future is uncertain.
As a student of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts immersing myself into the craft of painting, my visits to the art stores of Philadelphia were frequent and intense. Often I made these trips with fellow students and we spent great hours handling the tubes, bottles and brushes and discussing their alchemy. I knew of a courtship that solidified by a conversation where the two shared a love for the way thick Old Holland lead white yields a satisfying gritty crunch under the pressure of a palate knife.
My very first art materials were purchased right in Newtown borough at the Cameracraft store that once resided at 29 South State Street. Alan Brady operated the Cameracraft store for nearly 50 years. Alan’s career in photography began with a falsehood. He claimed to be handy with a camera to get a job assisting a photographer, then had to quickly learn the craft on the job. He moved to Bucks County with his wife Liz, a painter, and started up the store originally on Court Street. The storefront that Cameracraft would come to occupy was a hobby shop run by Ed Matlock. Before buying the building, Brady questioned Matlock why he didn’t stock art supplies, to which Matlock, pointing at a pitiful wheel of craft paints, replied that he did. Upon purchasing the building, Alan declared that he’d also sell artist’s materials. Matlock cautioned that there just wasn’t a market for it in the area. But appealing to the history of artistic ambition in Bucks County, Alan went along and contacted Windsor Newton to become a purveyor of their paints.
Before Camercraft, the nearest Art material sellers for folks in Lower Bucks were in Philadelphia. When The Bucks County Community College started their art curriculum, students equipped themselves at the Cameracraft, and it became a hub for much of the local art talent. The store elevated photography above the snapshot, and painting above a hobby. Alan’s children each lent a hand in the shop, his son David showing prowess at repairing cameras, his daughter Sally tending the framing station. Beverly Woodruff handled the dark room. Liz Brady kept the books in order and Alan is quick to say he wouldn’t have known how to keep things in line without her. Cameracraft was the sort of place where the familiarity of a small town is woven into a sense of community. Alan’s impish charm pervaded the store and he was just as quick to compliment his patrons as give them poignant ribbing. Photographs around the shop recorded Alan’s fervent love of bird watching and he’d happily tell you, as he does today, which interesting birds he’s had the privilege to see.
When I begin a session of painting, I spend a great deal of time getting my palette in order. I scrape away the dead dry paint, salvage what can still be used, tidy and arrange the layout of the palette and squeeze out new blobs from their tubes. This is a meditative time when I try to reconnect with the substance of paint. I not only consider its chemistry but my personal connection to the paint. Those colors are like old friends to me and I like to think on where we met. It’s a pleasure to remember Alan Brady’s store and the thrill of scanning through his rack of paint tubes. Seeing the varietals of color with exotic sounding titles were like nosing around a world map to find unfamiliar locations and suppose at the wonders therein.