Alchemist’s alchemy

WHAT WAS THE SECRET OF THE OLD MASTERS?

THE ALCHEMISTS KNEW…AND SO SHALL YOU!

That bold claim was printed on the (hilarious) instruction sheet tied to the products sold by the Alchemist. The Alchemist no longer uses that hokey marketing gimmick directly, but that message still pervades their website.

Claims to possess the secrets of the old masters invite ridicule, of course. Rob Howard, at the once-popular Studio Products (now defunct), mercilessly lampooned the Alchemist. Their outrageous price for amber varnish triggered epic rants. He also insisted that there was no such thing as amber varnish–it was a myth. He was wrong about that as he was about many other things.

Does the Alchemist possess the SECRETS OF THE OLD MASTERS? Of course not. There is no such thing. Howard was right about that. Groups of artists at all times have differed from one another. We’re talking about artists; how could it be otherwise?

If there is a secret it’s this: strong drawing and hard work.

Some years ago, despite the off-putting marketing, I ordered some of their Oil of Delft and Amber Varnish. I like trying new products, and when I do, I try to give them a fair trial. I used the amber varnish on several paintings.

The amber varnish is a decent oil-resin varnish, comparable, for example, to the varnishes sold by James Groves. Groves’ amber varnish is easily equal to the Alchemist’s but at a fraction of the price.

The Oil of Delt is also a decent, thickened oil. There are many ways to thicken oils, including boiling and exposing to sunlight. I noticed that these days, the Alchemist sales a sun-thickened oil also marketed as Oil of Delft.

So why don’t I use these products? The primary reason, in addition to the reasons I gave in my earlier post (cost, among other things), is illustrated by the following photos that I took in my studio.

This photo shows two bottles of the Alchemist Oil of Delft

Here is the back of the bottles. What do you notice? The listed ingredients are different. Amber is listed on the one on the left, but not on the other. Same product bought at the same time, so what gives? One of these bottles is mislabelled, but which one?

This shoddy quality control highlights why I don’t use these products. I don’t know what is in them. If I want to learn, I have to shell out $105(!!!) for a book, Lost Secrets of Flemish Painting, in which “the author has provided a detailed list of painting instructions, like recipes for preparing painting mediums.” Like recipes? What does that mean? This is very lawyerly prose.

They concede that the book is based on the De Mayerne manuscript, which is widely known, and discussed at length in Charles Eastlake’s wonderful book.

To sum up, the Alchemist makes half-way decent products that are hideously over-priced and marred by cringe-inducing marketing. To be fair, the art world is filled with horrible products that are also over-priced, although few reach the lurid heights of the Alchemist price-wise.

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