A Day’s Work: Paint maker

Sean Sullivan (photo by Rebecca Lang)

Sean Sullivan (photo by Rebecca Lang)

When Sean Sullivan tells people what he does, he has to phrase it carefully. He is a paintmaker, not a mixer. He starts with the basic elements and materials and turns them into a product that can be used by artists and everyday people. Sullivan, originally from Massapequa on Long Island, has lived in the Hudson Valley since 2001. He is a paintmaker and production manager for R&F Handmade Paints in Midtown Kingston. He is also an artist who currently lives in Saugerties with his wife and two sons.

Can you explain what you do?

As the R&F production manager, I make sure we have all the supplies we need, order the products and make all the schedules. But I started here making paint and I still do. There are only three paintmakers at R&F who know and pour paint.

I make two types of paints. One is the oil paint, which we call the pigment sticks. An artist can draw with it or break it down and use a brush with it. I also make a wax-based paint called encaustic paint. It is a solid paint that almost looks like a bar of soap. It needs heat to work. You have to use a hot plate to melt it and then use it. As soon as you get it off that heat, it cools. It allows an artist to layer paint and sort of sculpt with it.

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Paint makers primarily uses a formula that goes back to when the company started in 1988. It is a bit like baking. I am measuring specific ingredients and combining them and putting them through some difference processes. Once we have our mixture, we put it through a three-roll mill that we pour the paint into and set rollers in different places depending on the type of pigment we are milling. We may want a grainy feel to the paint, so we’d need to mill it at a different spacing.

Who uses your paint?

The encaustic paints are sold primarily to artists who are looking for a different experience. It yields different results then a tub of acrylic paint.  You need a set-up to use it, though. It requires a hot plate and ventilation. They are great for a multimedia, experimental-type artist. The pigment stick is very user-friendly. It doesn’t require any special equipment, and it is very immediate and versatile. I use it in my own work.

We sell our products wholesale, mostly. You can find our paints online or in stores. We also have a little store attached to the factory.

What type of training do you have?

All of the training is on the job. Most of the people at R&F who are involved in making the paint are artists. We have 104 colors on our line, and it can take years to get an experience making each paint. Some are more popular that others. It took me at least a year to start to get it, really. Someone shows you and you do it, but until you develop a feel for what you are trying to do and really start to own the process it can be tricky.

Once you get it, then you are able to recreate the subtleties and nuances that you see in the different pigments. That knowledge is based on experience. Setting the mill to get the subtle color and texture difference is a skill. Some of our colors have six different pigments in one product.

How did you get into this line of work?

I heard about it through another artist that worked there. I had been working at warehouse in Cornwall, so I jumped at the chance to be more involved in the arts. There is a large network of artists in this area and word-of-mouth-type referrals and information-spreading is common.

How does a small company like R&F compete on a global level?

The founder of R&F worked at a store in New York City that sold encaustic paint, and when that company went under he sort of took it over. He was really the only one who made this type of paint for about ten or twelve years, so he had that niche. We only make these two paints and we make them well.

What sort of person makes a good paintmaker?

I think it has to be someone who understands color. Not necessarily color theory but being able to look at colors and determine value and warmth. They also need a sensitivity to things. You need to be able to understand that some pigments should look and feel a certain way. There is also a physicality to paintmaking because you are pouring the paint and handling the machinery. You also need to be clean. It is a very messy job with lots of ingredients and an expected outcome. You can mess that up if you have cross-contamination.

Where do you get your material?

We get our supplies from all over the world. It is a big deal in the industry when a supplier runs [out] or discontinues something. Sometimes the replacement material won’t have the same nuance that we are looking for.

Is there a danger in paintmaking?

There is a toxicity involved. The danger is if some of the dried pigments get airborne and you breathe it in. We store it in a specific place that has a vacuum that pulls all loose particles out. We wear full hazmat-type suits while we make them. Once those pigments are suspended in the oils that we mix them with, it is safe to bring out into production.

What makes for a good day?

As a production manager, if everyone else there is doing their best and having a good day, I am having a good day.

A bad day?

For a paintmaker, if the color comes out wrong. Then you have to add other things to it and try to get it to the standard. We want a consistency from batch to batch. So sometimes you have to correct something, and it can go on and on and you still want to pour that paint. It can be a long day then.

How has your job changed since you started?

Well, I started as only making paint. And now as a supervisor I have a lot more responsibility. The company has gained in popularity, and as an artist I can see that in the outside world. The paint is used by some of the most well-respected, most highly regarded artists in the outside world. It is something to be proud of.  Our knowledge of paint has gotten deeper. But the process of making paint hasn’t changed too much. It’s gotten busier.

How’s the pay?

The pay is okay. They do their best, within their means, to get people what they need. l

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