Jim Cobb: Our Colour-Man

Ever since he was a young art student in the 1950s in Sydney under Desiderius Orban, Jim Cobb has been experimenting with making paints.

He describes his difficulty with oil paints in those early years. “I’m basically a failed artist who found himself in the world of paint manufacturing” Jim jokes. “As excellent a teacher as Orban was, he should have made me scrape all the paint off and start again,” he adds, “but instead he allowed me to build up too many layers, wet over wet so that I ended up with mud pie paintings.”

What Jim wanted back then was something that dried more rapidly than oil paint so that he couldn’t mess it up. With a few drop-in visits to a nearby chemical factory – “you could just walk right in back in those days” – Jim was on his way to producing homemade acrylics.

This was just the beginning in a 50-year career that has seen Jim at the leading edge of artists’ and students’ paint production, supplying high quality paints to artists, students and children in Australia and around the globe, culminating in the first artist’s acrylic paint with a controllable drying time.

What quickly emerges from our discussion is that Jim is a natural when it comes to turning obstacles into game-changers. “I think of problems or frustrations as being like grains of sand which act as the irritants which create the pearl,” he says.

Now in his 80s, he is still regularly at work in the Chromacryl factory in Mt Kuring-Gai. A portrait by Euan MacLeod, ‘Jim Cobb at Factory’, from the Chroma Collection presents Jim in his element, surrounded by various barrels containing pigments and who knows what experimental sludges and slurries. He cuts a mysterious yet everyday figure emerging from the shadows in his plain, paint-spattered T-shirt – a modern day paint alchemist.

He describes with some excitement a new oil paint being released next year which will not separate in the tube. “When you unscrew the lid for the first time, there won’t be an oil release first before the coloured paint comes out.”

Any oil painter will know exactly what he means. “It matters because what is usually left in the tube is unbalanced if all this oil and resin has been separated.” Problem solved. “We now also have a new property added to our permanently flexible oil paint that doesn’t crack as it ages.”

With an increasing number of art supply stores shutting up shop or moving towards online sales, the relationship between artists and paint manufacturers is more distant than it has ever been. The expectation that tubes of Naples Yellow, Viridian and Titanium White should be sitting on the doorstep within three working days is liberating in one sense but its downside is that it is an impersonal process driven by economics.

In the past, artists either made their own paints, or they likely knew the people who did. Paints evolved through discussion and mutual experimentation. Gradually this relationship grew more segregated as paint production became industrialised and moved into the specialist domain of chemistry. The problem, according to Jim, is that this has now evolved to the point where “many paint factories rely on their marketing departments to decide which pigments to create”.

In this context Jim is clearly an anomaly. Dialogue with artists is of seminal importance to him and he has worked hard over the years to give artists what they need.

Elisabeth Cummings has used Jim’s paints for over 35 years. In her experience they are both “innovative and acutely sensitive to the spectrum of the colours found in Australia”.

Idris Murphy likens Jim to Père Tanguy who supplied artist materials to avant-garde painters such as Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin in Paris in the late 1800s. In the Australian context, Murphy describes Jim as “our colour-man, painting and making paint in direct contact with the artists!”

This spirit of open collaboration and enquiry is partly why Jim is so highly regarded by some of Australia’s finest painters. John R Walker gives an account of his experience of Jim. “I first met Jim Cobb when I was a young art student in the late 1970s. Jim would turn up at the art school and talk with us about paint and all its wonders, tricks and techniques for hours and then hand out generous free samples. For 50 years Jim Cobb has been one of the unsung heroes of Australian art. His keenness to directly consult with artists about “what kind of paint would suit you?” combined with his skill as a paintmaker and his willingness to experiment has greatly enriched our art world.

Jim is quick to point out that he is not a chemist. He is perhaps something of a hybrid, brilliantly integrating the rational, scientific sphere of paint production with the material intelligence that artists learn the hard way. “You can only get it by doing it,” says Jim, affirming the idea that intuitive and lateral processes are just as important as formulas. Actually he thinks of himself as more akin to a cook who goes to the market to find the freshest and best ingredients.

The nuanced knowledge that he so freely shares highlights Jim’s passion for education. He was an art teacher for a few years and was integral to the establishment of ArtExpress. He believes strongly that the hyper-connectivity of our online life is causing us to lose touch with the wonders of the materials around us, and this has serious implications for our understanding of art. “The physical surface of a painting is as important as what the image depicts. The only thing we really have when we rely on reproductions of paintings on little screens is the subject, but we lose almost everything else – the scale, the layering, the surface textures. These are all an essential part of the meaning of an artwork.”

In keeping with his wish that the public should have access to high quality originals, Jim donated 35 remarkable paintings, known as the Chroma Collection, to Orange Regional Gallery in February 2013. This is just one example of Jim’s philanthropic way of participating in the art world – a quality which has endeared him to artists, teachers and gallery owners. He has supported the careers of many artists over the years by actively collecting their work and providing them with bespoke materials. All of the artworks in the Chroma Collection were created using specially formulated paints to meet artists’ needs. Highlights include a shimmering Elisabeth Cummings oil, ‘After the Wet, Elcho Island, 2004’, a masterpiece in yellows and dusty greys; John R Walker’s ‘Dry Dam, Bedervale’ which so vividly captures the searing drought in 2004; and five cascading paintings by Emily Kame Kngwarreye in ranges of cadmiums, pinks and browns. Striking works by Roy Jackson, Idris Murphy, Rollin Schlicht, John Peart and many others are included.

Jim’s donation of the Chroma Collection adds a new chapter to the Orange Regional Gallery’s collection of Australian modern and contemporary paintings. To acknowledge this extraordinary gift and to celebrate his wonderful contribution to Australian art, the Gallery is exhibiting this collection in its entirety along with screenings of interviews with Jim and some of the artists.

Chroma: the Jim Cobb gift
Orange Regional Gallery
Until 29 March 2015

Images courtesy the artists and the Orange Regional Gallery

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