Artists and scientists from Silpakorn University have delighted local artists by producing new, quality low-cost paints
Thailand has embraced modern art for more than six decades since the first art university, Silpakorn University, was founded in 1943. From then on, art study has blossomed at different school levels and artists have emerged in a great numbers. But throughout the years, artists and art students have had to rely on imported paints _ from oil to acrylics to watercolours _ to create their works. No local paint products have been developed despite longstanding complaints of high prices for the imported products.
Good student-grade paint costs 120 baht per tube while artist-grade paint can cost from 2,000 to 3,000 baht per tube. The total cost of paint imported into Thailand jumped from 28 million baht to 50 million baht last year. This does not include artists' personal purchases when they go abroad.
All that is about to change. The first Thai-manufactured paints, Silpakorn Pradit (``Silpakorn made''), will be launched on Wednesday, April 2. Created by the ``Research Project Colours for Art'' at Silpakorn University, the products are of high quality but are priced 30 to 40 percent lower than imported products.
Why did it take such a long time for Thai paints to be developed?
``I think it's because artists and scientists live in different worlds. They don't cross paths so there has been no integration between the two groups,'' said Acharn Thavorn Ko-Udomvit, artist and head of the Colours for Art project at Silpakorn University.
That changed when he met Dr Supanee Chayabutra from the Faculty of Chemistry in late 2001 when both were administrators on the university board. Acharn Thavorn asked his chemistry colleague to work with him to develop paints. The project got off the ground and won support from the university, but their initial attempt was far from perfect.
Then one day, Dr Supanee attended a seminar on ink for banknote printing and met a chemist colleague, Dr Suree Jiraratanasopa, who was giving a presentation that day. Dr Suree works as an ink expert for the Bank of Thailand. Dr Supanee wondered if Dr Suree's techniques could be adapted to make paints. She told Dr Suree about the Silpakorn project and invited her to help develop the paints.
Dr Suree agreed to help. She recruited two assistants from the Bank of Thailand, and they all worked in the evenings on the project. They got financial support from the Ministry of University Affairs.
``We started by experimenting,'' said Dr Supanee. ``We knew that paint consists of two parts: binders and pigments. We examined existing paint and guessed at its composition.''
``The key is to find the right binders for each kind of paint. We did a lot of experimenting before we got it right.''
The standards the production team set were high. They wanted to make paint that was high quality and environmentally friendly while keeping the price low.
Within a few months, the lab in Silpakorn University at Taling Chan produced the first products ready to test. Sixty celebrated artists were invited to test them during three sessions in January 2002.
According to Acharn Thavorn, the artists were happy with the qualities of the pigments from the first test. ``They all said that the pigments were good and even better than some artist-grade paints available,'' said Acharn Thavorn. ``They also made suggestions for improvement. Our team took these back with us.''
Acrylics were the easiest to perfect. The artists complained that the paints cracked when they dried, so the chemists remedied the problem by using a different binder.
Dr Supanee's team also came up with new acrylic hues, including metallic gold, copper and a red bronze tone, which every artist who has tried loves.
Kamol Tassananchalee, the Thai artist who has made a name for himself in the United States and on the international art scene, attended the testing and bought a big supply of acrylics to take back to Los Angeles.
Creating watercolours was more difficult for the team.
``We thought the artists would love a bright colour that adheres well to the media they use,'' said Dr Supanee. ``But they told us they wanted paints with transparent stains that can be dissolved again. They wanted the paints to be transparent to allow each paint layer to show its colour.''
So the team had to experiment with different binders to get the effect the artists wanted. They achieved it by combining three kinds of binders.
The oil paints the team created satisfied some of the artists but not others. ``Some artists preferred our oil paints because they don't have to add linseed oil because the paint permits flowing strokes. But some said the paint flows too much,'' said Acharn Thavorn.
The team was honoured to have royal guest artist HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn test their products.
``The Princess tried the paints twice and gave us many useful comments. She also advised us on testing the resistance [to sunlight] of the paints,'' said Acharn Thavorn.
Once they perfected the texture and colour, the next step was durability. The team used the International Blue Wool Standards that guarantee against fading from sunlight for more than 100 years.
``We were able to meet this standard because we could draw on support and research from the art and science fields of the university.'' said Acharn Thavorn. ``And we also won tremendous supports from artist friends. They gave us encouragement to go on.''
Silpakorn Pradit is able to keep their prices low as most of the materials are available locally except for the pigments.
As satisfied artists spread the word from the testing room, the project has gathered more interest among artists. Artist Suwat Vanmanee, who participated in the testing, says his colleagues around the country are eager to try the paints.
``My friends have heard about the paints and inquired about them. They're looking forward to trying them,'' said Suwat. ``The metallic gold has already become very popular.''
On the day this interview was conducted, noted Malaysian artist Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir was visiting Acharn Thavorn at his office. Upon hearing about the products, she tried a few strokes on acrylic _ and then bought 40 tubes to take home.
``I trust him so I trust that the quality is good,'' she laughed when asked why she was so confidently buying so many of the products. ``The paint applies smoothly and the intensity is good. I don't have to use many layers like with the paints I'm currently using.
``The price is also much cheaper. We have to import paint, and the price increases every year because of duty and the exchange rate. I can buy three tubes of Silpakorn for the price of one imported tube. If the paints are introduced in Malaysia, I think they will be a hit.''
Acharn Thavorn says the university is looking for a public company to take over the production.