Sarah Freeman meets the Yorkshire artists who, frustrated by cheap acrylic paints, decided to make their own using rare pigments, ancient recipes and the latest scientific thinking. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
Rebecca Wallace and Pip Seymour’s workshop looks much like any other artist’s studio.
Even on a bitingly cold day, the views across the hills around Settle are picture postcard and inside, every surface is covered with the couple’s own artwork, colour swatches and tubes of watercolours, oils and acrylics.
The only difference is that each of the paints is handmade by them and together they are on a bit of a mission to revive the art of painting, which was cast into the shadows 20-odd years ago by the arrival of the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
When they and the other Young British Artists, who would never have been seen with anything as conventional as a brush and palette in hand, started hitting the headlines as part of the Cool Britannia bandwagon, the artistic landscape changed and those like Bradford-born Pip, who had been schooled in painting, suddenly found their practice deemed outdated.
“Necessity I guess was the mother of invention,” says Pip whose journey from artist to paint-maker began in the 1990s when he first started working with acrylics and became frustrated by the finish. “No matter what I did, it always ended up with a plastic sheen and whichever paint I used it always felt quite difficult to work with. That’s when I first began to wonder whether I should have a go at making my own.”
At the same time as the YBA movement, many of Britain’s small, artisan paintmakers were being bought out by bigger companies. As with many other industries, production was often moved overseas and with demand for bigger margins and cheaper products, quality was compromised.
“It was a perfect storm,” adds Pip, who trained at Winchester School of Art.
“At most of the leading art schools, painting almost became taboo. Even if that was the medium you wanted to study, it pretty much became off-limits.
“No one wanted to do painting any more, it was seen as incredibly old fashioned and perhaps because there were so few people to champion it, there was also no one to complain when the students no longer had access the very best materials.”
While everyone’s heads were turned by Hirst’s formaldehyde cow and Emin’s unmade bed, Pip and Rebecca decided they would start their own quiet revolution. Moving back to Yorkshire eight years ago, their aim was simple – to make the kind of quality artist’s materials they wanted to paint with.
“We really did start with a blank canvas,” says Rebecca. “For both of us Titian in the 16th century represents the golden age of painting. We wanted to see if we could reproduce not just that same palette of colours, but also that same quality of paint, which was a million miles away from most of the ones we could buy back then.”
As well as being established artists, Pip and Rebecca had long had an interest in the chemistry of colour and through hours of research – and much trial and error – began formulating the recipes for the Wallace Seymour range.
“It’s an expensive and painstaking business, but it’s also a labour of love,” Pip says. “Every pigment needs a slightly different recipe to work as a paint and working out how much of each ingredient to add is time consuming, but this was never something we wanted to rush.”
While the recipe for each of their paints is a trade secret, what they will share is that they rely on natural pigments. Their acrylic range includes paints with mudstone and bluestone from Oxfordshire, while their oils range includes a number of pigments sourced from quarries across the north of England. Then there is the ancient drawing materials assortment, boasting black shale from North Yorkshire, green slate from Honister in Cumbria and white chalk from the North Downs.
“What we wanted was paint where you could really see the pigment and which has a really natural texture to it, so when you put it onto a canvas it really catches the light,” says Rebecca. “We have been really fortunate in finding people who really want to work with us. A lot of the stones we use in our paints are byproducts of quarrying and we are always on the lookout for new pigments we can work with.
“I remember on one trip to Italy, we managed to find this incredible orange mud and when we asked the landowner whether we would be able to buy some of it for our paints, he thought we were mad, but handed over a bucket of colour and wished us well.
“Sourcing the right pigments to get just the right colour is the exciting part and has already taken us on many adventures.”
Determined to keep the business in-house, Pip and Rebecca have set up a small factory close to where they live and, rather than spend huge amounts of money on an expensive marketing campaign, they have been content to let the reputation of Wallace Seymour spread by word of mouth.
Their paints have found a champion in Stokesley-based painter William Tillyer, Liverpool’s Claire McCarthy recently used them for her new collection inspired by the iconic Mersey Ferry and they now supply more than 50 stores in this country, as well as France, Italy, Ireland and the Czech Republic.
“We are often asked by artists if we will sell to them direct, but right from the start we were determined that if people wanted our paints they would have to go into an art shop to buy it,” adds Rebecca. “These places are really important. The best of them are run by people who have incredible knowledge about paint and we should treasure them.
“Once they are gone they will never come back and this is our way of doing our bit to save them. We don’t just want them to stock our paint, but when people come in we want them to be able to tell our story and to show them how to get the best results.”
Pip has also become something of an expert in resin and is fast carving out a niche supplying the Italian craftsmen of Cremona where the famous Stradivarius violins hail from.
“Now that is a whole other level of science,” says Pip, who confesses he doesn’t play the instrument himself. “There are so many different types of resin and varnishes and each maker has his own slightly different formula. It absolutely effects the sound and they seem to be really impressed with our products.”
The only downside with running your own paint business is that it seems to leave little time at the easel. “Neither of us paint as much as we would like to,” admits Pip. “For the last few years we have lived and breathe setting up this business and it’s so lovely now not just to see our paints in shops, but being used by artists to produce some really wonderful work.”
Pip and Rebecca will be showing recent work during the Three Peaks Arts Studio Trail in June and July. threepeaksarts.co.uk/art-trail
For more about Wallace Seymour paints visit wallaceseymour.co.uk