On a sunny, bright day in Yarraville, David Coles meets me out the front of his factory with a cigarette in hand. “We’re making Cadmium Red Light today,” he says. “You’re in for a treat.” Coles speaks fast, and quite a bit, in a soft southern English accent.
We’re at Langridge Artist Colours, an internationally revered paint brand he started in 1992. Twenty-five thousand tubes of artist oil paints come out of this little building every year. It’s a tight space, just 260 square metres, packed to the ceiling with equipment and storage, with seven staff jostling for space. When I post some quick shots on Instagram, a friend replies, “Is it weird this is making me hungry?” Not really. The factory floor is more than a little like a commercial kitchen. It’s not just the requisite level of cleanliness to prevent cross-contamination of colours. Several of the industrial mixers here were designed for dough. Coles’s favourite machine, a battered 50-year-old Lehmann triple-roll mill, had a former life in a chocolate factory.
As I arrive, the Cadmium Red Light – currently just a grainy, paste-like blend of pigment and oil – has just reached the end of two solid hours in the industrial mixer, making it fine enough to put through the triple-roll mill. One of Coles’s staff hoists the bucket of thick, vivid mixture into the mill and we watch huge granite rollers grind it down to what looks like fondant. It needs to be passed through several more times before it’s smooth enough to paint with. “This is the heart of paint-making,” Coles says, looking at the machine’s green enamel surface. “It’s three rollers and a bastard of a motor. It’s like a pasta-making machine on steroids.”
Paint-making is a very precise process, but there’s not much in the way of high-tech machinery in here. “The human eye is still the best machine there is,” Coles says. Needless to say, he has acute colour sensitivity. If the result is off by the subtlest shade, he can’t sell it. Langridge Artist Colours has built a substantial reputation for its high-end artist paints, which are made with the best ingredients available. “The quality of what we make is based around how much pigment we put in,” Coles says. “The more colour [that] goes in, the more colour the artist gets out.”
Pigment is the fine powder that’s bound into oil to make paint. These days most pigments are made synthetically – it’s cheaper, more precise and makes longer-lasting paint. Langridge, on the other hand, uses natural pigments from around the world. Coles sources for quality, not convenience. A single pigment, the perfect vermillion, comes from Hong Kong. Lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, comes from Afghanistan. The production of pigment has always been driven by large industries, such as the auto industry. But with the widespread shift to synthetic paints, most natural pigments have become rare and expensive. Coles has just written a book, Chromatopia, which delves into the romantic stories behind various pigments. They’re all fascinating. The country Brazil was named after brazilwood, a native tree discovered to be a valuable source of a deep red rue. Naples Yellow is said to have originated in Mount Vesuvius. Vermillion – mercury sulphide – apparently turned miners insane.
I have some sympathy for those miners. While showing me through the pigment storeroom, Coles pulls the lid off a large tub of Ultramarine Blue. No photograph can capture the experience of gazing straight into that ultramarine. It’s as if you’re not looking at something that’s blue – not the sky, the ocean or a flower – but looking at blue itself; the very essence of the colour. It flares the edges of your eyesight, leaving trails when you turn away. “We sell so much pigment,” Coles says, “but I’m sure most people aren’t sitting there with a muller and slab [like a mortar and pestle] grinding up their own paints. They’re buying it just to have a bit of colourful beauty.”
Pigment was the starting point for Coles too. When he was a kid in England, his parents owned an art store. “They were little jars of powdered jewels as far as I was concerned,” he says. “Especially the Ultramarine Blue.”
Later he went to art college, then worked at a paint shop in London where he and the other staff spent their spare time learning to make colours for themselves. “We were all artists, and all heavily invested in the materials we were selling,” he says. “We’d experiment in the evenings, making these ridiculous concoctions from the 18th and 19th centuries. Gum elemi. Copper balsam. Mastic tears.”
Coles was learning millennia-old methods that have ebbed and flowed with history. The recipe for Egyptian Blue, which is made from glass coloured by copper, was lost in the fall of the Roman Empire and rediscovered centuries later. Now, modern chemistry can deconstruct and retro-engineer something from 5000 years ago with amazing precision.
“It’s our Jurassic Park,” says Coles. “Life finds a way.”
When he arrived in Australia in his twenties, he looked out over the plane wing at the earth, struck by the new colours the continent offered him. “I got a one-way ticket to Darwin, and bang: giant landscapes, scintillating with that direct sunlight.”
Coles started Langridge Artist Colours out of an industrial space in Collingwood. He’d leave his day job as an ice-cream maker, then rush to the factory to complete orders, often sleeping there overnight. “I think the first 15 years was when I had the most fun,” he says. “You know, when your back is against the wall and you’re living off your own wits. The chase is the fun part.”
Coles still explores and experiments, though. He laughs about his wife coming home recently and finding something boiling on the stove. To her disappointment, he was working on a soft red colour, not cooking her dinner.
On the fourth run through the mill, the Cadmium Red Light has finally been smoothed into paint. Ten litres doesn’t look like much for all that work, but Langridge is about quality over quantity. Coles is obviously happy.
“Langridge satisfies me creatively,” he says. “I have one crack at this life, and I want to make sure it counts. Everything you see from Langridge is an extension of myself.”
He pauses before adding the reason he makes paint: “The world needs more sodding beauty.”
Buy David Coles’s book, Chromatopia, at chromatopia.org.