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How Did Artists Store Oil Paints Before Paint Tubes?

Margaret Lipman
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Oil-based paints have been around for centuries, with the first examples dating to 7th-century Buddhist art on cave walls in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. During the Impressionist era, which sprang up in Paris in the late 1860s, renowned artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas used oil paints to create the delicate yet visible brushstrokes synonymous with Impressionism.

However, the works of Impressionist artists might have been very different if not for an invention created by American portrait painter John Goffe Rand. Born in New Hampshire in 1801, Rand's primary legacy wasn't his artwork but his ingenious solution for storing paint.

Before Rand invented the paint tube, oil paints were commonly stored in pig's bladders or glass syringes. Both of these methods had their downsides. After piercing a hole in the pig's bladder to release the paint, it was very challenging to seal up the hole, so the paint often dried out or had to be used in a single sitting. Similarly, glass syringes pushed paint out with a plunger but there was no way of sealing them afterwards. As a result, oil paints were difficult to transport, limiting the locations where artists could paint.

While living in London in 1841, Rand came up with the idea of crafting a tube from tin that could be resealed. This collapsible tube allowed paints to be stored for longer without drying out and could be opened and closed. Though far more convenient than a pig’s bladder or glass syringe, it took some time for artists to adopt Rand’s paint tubes, especially as tin was expensive at the time. However, the invention soon revolutionized the art world, allowing Impressionist painters to create artwork outside of the studio, in natural settings where they could be spontaneously inspired by changes in light and movement. The accessibility of tin tubes also allowed artists a wider variety of colors to use to capture their inspiration, both real and imagined.

Paints, pigments, and pigs:

  • According to his son, Pierre-Auguste Renoir once said that “without paints in tubes, there would have been no Cézanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissaro, nothing of what the journalists were later to call Impressionism.” Despite this, Rand received little recognition for his invention.

  • Historically, pig bladders have had multiple uses. In the early 19th century, they were used as an airtight membrane in early rugby balls.

  • Ultramarine blue was once an extremely rare pigment that was more expensive than gold.

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Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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