The New York Times September 23, 1998
Ingredients for Success: Ground Pigments and Lindseed Oil
CARL PLANSKY holds the strange distinction of being a prospering entrepreneur who has yet to acquire
a tie or a jacket. He owns Willimsburg Art Supplies, a tiney shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that specializes in
homade oil paints. In an age when most paint is mass-produced, and when even much of the art in the galleries has a manufactured
sheen (think video monitors), Mr. Plansky has earned a loyal following for his old Worldish ways. "I don't want to boast,"
he said on a recent afternoon, "but all the schmeary painters buy from me."
At 47, Mr. Plansky is a short,
rotund man with flyaway gray hair. Dressed in a plaid shirt, the tails hanging out over rumpled work pants, he looks like
an artist, and in fact is one. Unable to live off the sale of his art, he went into the paint business in 1986. The idea of
an artist grinding his own pigments may evoke quaint visions of Ye Olde Paint Shoppe, yet in New York, where the number of
artists (roughly 100,000) well exceeds the entire population of Florence during the Renaissance, the competition amoung art-supply
companies is fierce.
Last year, Mr. Plansky sold 21,000 tubes of oil paint, not quite as many as, say Winsor & Newton,
a London-based company that sold 2 million tubes in North America alone. Nonetheless, Mr. Plansky is thrilled to claim an
income in the mid-five figures. "It's like having a perpetual, never-ending grant," he exclaimed.
on East Fourth Street is picturesque, a tiny, sun-flooded space stocked with a bright array of supplies -- jars of powdered
pigment, quart-size bottles of linseed oil, tubes of oil paint in colors htat span the rainbow. On a typical day, his customers
might range from art students with spiked hair and pierced noses to leading painters like Milton Resnick, Bill Jensen, Terry
Winters and Brice Marden. "I have a special relationship with Carl's colors," Mr. Marden noted with affection, referring
to the company's wide selection of one-of-a-kind hues, which included Spanish Earth, Intense Black and Courbet Green.
Plansky describes his entry into the paint business as a kind of happy accident. In 1985, working from his studio in the Williamsburg
section of Brooklyn, he began making oil paint for himself. Although he had no plans to sell it, within a year his artist-friends
had mooched, bartered and bought enough paint from him to turn him into the master supplier of the Williamburg art crowd.
Mr. Plansky wasn't sure whether that meant he was a bona fide success or just a potential tax evader, and he promptly contacted
the Internal Revenue Service.
"I was making too much money to pretend that my activities were like Grandma's cookies
at the flea market," he recalled. "There were too many checks, so I had to go legit and get a tax number for resale."
be sure, the stereotypical artist is thought to be hopeless at numbers, and Mr. Plansky says it's true. His company is now
a bustling operation with five employees and a hilltop factory outside Oneata, N.Y., yet he tries to stay removed from the
nuts and bolts. He relies on an accountant to take care of what he calls "all the payroll stuff." An office manager
keeps track of sales. The company has never advertised or taken out a loan. While other executives plot epansionist dramas,
Mr. Plansky routinely declines offers from retail outlets eager to sell his products. "If I made the paint any faster,"
he explained, "the quality wouldn't be the same.
Most oil paint is made from a mixture of ground pigments and linseed
oil, but the basic recipe, like any recipe, is only as good as the person using it. While big paint companies generally gring
every last ounce of pigment and oil to a uniform consistency, Mr. Plansky, using a three-roll mill designed in the 19th century,
grinds each of his 120 colors to a consistency of its own. Artists who a Minimal, Conceptual or just overly literal are not
likely to love Mr. Plansky's paint. Rather, it appeals to those who revel in the muckiness of oil paint.
makes the best paint around," said Bill Jensen, a 53-year-old painter of darkly churning abstractions. "With commercial
paints, everything comes out feeling like molasses. But with Carl's paint, every color has a different texture. His raw umber
is unbelievable. It feels like sand."
Naturall, Mr. Plansky's corporate competitors are less impressed with his
home-brewed paint. "It's just about elitism," said Lynn Pearl, a spokeswoman for Winsor & Newton, the long-established
seller of artists' oil paints. "Artists like having a secret source. They like to think they're using a paint that there
are only five tubes of. But we believe that commercial paints are superior because of the fineness of the pigment particles."
about oil paint are as old as oil paint itself, which was invented at the dawn of the Renaissance. All the Old Masters ground
their own pigments, while famously refusing to share their recipes. The exact ingredients of any artist's paint was considered
a matter of utmost secrecy, giving rise to suspicion, furious gossip and scholarly treaties. "If you go to the British
Museum," Mr. Plansky noted, "you could no doubt find beneath a pile of 20,000 books a treatise titled, 'How
I Think Rubens Probably Made His Famous Glazes to Get That Enamel-Like Quality in His Nudes.' "
A turning point
came in the mid-19th century, with the invention of the squeeze tube. Artists had previously stored their paints in pig bladders,
which were prized for being airtight; tubed paints offered a new convenience. They brought on the phenomenon of the Sunday
painter, and the biggest shake-up in art history since the Renaissance. As Mr. Plansky explained, offering a view of French
Impressionism not likely to be heard in an art-history class: "Suddenly artists had portable materials. They could go
outdoors and paint plein-air and not have to worry about puncturing some bladder."
The son of a hairdresser ("My
father specialized in big hair for weddings and bar mitzvahs," he said), Mr. Plansky grew up in Baltimore. At 18, he
moved to New York, eager to prove himself in the art capital, or rather to suffer the grand indignities of the creative life.
After a stint at the New York Studio School, he worked at odd jobs, spending about a decade behind the counters of delicatessens
in Greenwich Village. "I was the best lox slicer in New York," he said.
Over the years, Mr. Plansky has received
intermittent encouragement for his own artwork--big, voluptuous landscapes that focus mostly on trees. When he had his first
solo show, at the 55 Mercer Gallery in SoHo in 1992, the critic Jed Perl noted in The New Criterioun: "I can't think
of another artist of Plansky's generation who has such a splendiferous feeling for paint...Plansky is a natural.
days, however, Mr. Plansky can't find a gallery willing to exhibit his work. He regularly wanders SoHo and Chelsea with slides
of his more recent paintings, humbly asking dealers to take a look. "The cult of youth makes it hard to get a show,"
he said with resignation. "Everyone wants the latest thing, but the latest thing is retro or neo-retro. I don't get it."
the meantime, Mr. Plansky is glad to be earning a living in the paint business, even if surveys indicate that the demand for
oil paint is no longer growing. Since the 50's, when Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning splashed out their Abstract Expressionist
masterpieces and invested oil paint with a new grandeur, rival paints have come along. The 60's saw a boom in acrylic paints,
which are made from a liquid form of plastic and allow artists to wash their brushes in water, as opposed to smelly turpentine.
Acrylics were the perfec complement to the no-muss, no-fuss look of Warhol's soup cans and the Pop productions of their era.
the latest vogue is for "water-based oil paint," a contridiction of terms that is proving to be a commercial success.
"It's really insane," Mr. Plansky observed. "How can someone choose a paint just because it's easy to clean
It's true that oil-on-canvas loyalists can sometimes seem like an embattled minority. Yet Mr. Plansky has
played no small part in keeping them alive, or at least well stocked with supplies. His paints are competively priced, from
$7 for a standard studio-size tube of burnt umber to $30 for cobalt yellow. Special customers receive a 30 percent discount
but, as Mr. Plansky said, "Everyone is a special customer."