Friday, July 25, 2014

Notes on European art supply stores

In the last the ten years I have managed to go to Europe 4 times, spending time in Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, and Florence. On each trip I try to locate some art supply stores, in the hope that I might find the mythic "old school" art supply. I can't say exactly what these things should be, other than that they should be something that one cannot find in America at places like Dickblick, Utrecht, Pearl Paint, or any of the many smaller art supply stores. Here is a list of what I have a vague idea that I am looking for.

1. Authentic clay drawing chalks. This is the holy grail of old school materials, always talked about but never found. We presume the master draftsmen of the renaissance used such things. Old school art teachers will reference their existence, or refer to a small supply of them that they acquired long ago.

2. Anything of unfamiliar origin (unknown brand) but of unsurpassed quality. This includes brushes, pencil, papers, and particularly sketch pads. I'm always looking for a sketch pad that is better than the Strathmore 400 hardcover sketch pad.

3. Unusual sculpting tools or mechanical devices that suggest old world techniques long since lost and unknown to the American mind.

4. In general... a brand I never heard of.

The conclusion I have drawn is that none of this stuff exists. The art supply stores I have visited have all the same crap that you find in Dick Blick... only less of it in stock... and at higher prices. Those stores with some kind of "history" are no different... the only thing historical about them at this point is that their retail spaces are tiny and cramped... and maybe they take the pencils and conte crayons out of the packaging and arrange them in mahogany display cases. Certainly this enhances the charm of the store, but it does not represent a breakthrough in materials. The other OLD SCHOOL aspect of these historical stores is that the staff are not customer service oriented... and they close for lunch. The store might be 5th generation purveyors of fine pencils... and they might be the store where Picasso bought his paint brushes... but those times are long gone, and with them the very objects that I am seeking.

Here is a partial list of the cities and stores I have visited. These are the ones I can remember. I popped my head into more than this, but I can't recall them all. The following are also the ones most typically reported online as being the best. I will list them, then give a quick summation, and note anything I bought there. I should say that I have managed to find things that are satisfyingly different and useful, but nothing to support my dream of a profoundly different art supply.

   Ditta G. Poggi (Via del Gusu, 74-75) Near Pantheon
      CON: Old guys behind counter stare at you, cramped
      PRO: bought a pair of brass dividers for 14 euros

   Ditta G. Poggi (via Carinale Marry del Val, 18) In Trastevere
      CON: Young guys behind counter stare at you like you're a thief
      PRO: bought three sheets of cotton fiber paper (6x9 size) for 60 cents per piece
           Also, they carried a line of tiny etching presses that I never heard of,
           which looked of decent quality

   Zecchi (Via dello Studio 19r) Near the Duomo
      CON: Very crowded, old guys stare at you, same old materials as ever
      PRO: they had some pieces of linen that seemed cheap, but so what

   Rigacci (Via dei 71R)
      CON: The epitome of fussy art store. Small. 2B graphite pencils of no particular relevance are
           housed in display cases as if the ghost of Michelangelo was going to stop by later.
      PRO: none, really... except it's better to have some art supply stores than none

   Lory (Piazza Frescobaldi 4-9r) Across from Ponte Santa Tinita
      CON: rude bitch behind counter, same old materials as ever
      PRO: Unpretentious, modern retail space...easy to shop in

   Sennelier (3 quai Voltaire) around the corner from the Beaux Arts
      The archetypical "Historic" art supply, located around the corner from the Beaux Arts
      We can imagine all the greats coming in here to buy stuff
      CON: cramped... always seems to be closed, and is closed for lunch
      PRO: managed to buy a tiny sketch book that was semi-cool and different

   Le Geant des Beaux Arts (166 rue de La Roquette) further out from center
      A large space... Dickblick-esque, I guess. Lot's of stuff, but nothing unusual
      CON: A bit of a hike from center of Paris
      PRO: Unpretentious. Staff were courteous.

   Barna Art (Carrer del Rossello, 290)
      CON: Small, cramped, nobody spoke English (my bad, I know)
      PRO: I bought a small pencil sharpener for 2 euro that I like

   A.J. van der Linde (Rozengracht 36, 1016NC)
      CON: nothing really... same old stuff
      PRO: bought some paper, no big deal though

   The art supply stores in Europe usually carry watercolor sets in metal boxes, which is nice. Apparently there is no market for this amongst the cheap-ass Americans.


Earlier I said that customer service in the old-school European art stores was bad. Let me explain what I mean via the following observations.

It is my belief that Americans like to be in control of their experiences, but that Europeans are comfortable being led by others. Americans love autonomy and control and independence... or so they say. Americans are terrible conformists in social life, but in private they don't want to be told what to do. An example of this that I have found is navigating European cities. In Europe, it is often difficult to find signage indicating where you are... whereas in America you have a metal post or two at every intersection announcing where you are. America is a big grid-plan with labeled coordinates. European cities are (historically at least) Gothic warrens of confusion, where you either "just know where you are", or simply follow signs to where you are predestined to go.

Most of the signage in Europe is not about where you are, but about how far and in what direction SPECIFIC THINGS are from where you are. In other words, the European society presumes that if you are standing on this particular corner, that you need to know the direction and distance for half a dozen particular places. In other words, they are making presumptions about where you want to go. What they won't tell you (via street name signs) is where you are RIGHT NOW. Americans want to know WHERE AM I RIGHT NOW... because Americans want to located themselves on a map, which gives maximum flexibility of movement. It might be the case that I want to walk to (say) the Pantheon in Rome... but if the only sign I see is one that says [Pantheon 500 meters this way], it bothers me... because it's not helping me walk to the Pantheon the way that I want to. And if I DON'T want to go to the Pantheon at that moment, the sign is useless.

This seems like a little thing, but variations of this occur all the time. Consider eating in European restaurants, and how they are famously unwilling to vary their offerings, or how they do things how they want to do things. I'm not saying this is wrong... but it is entirely a cultural thing. In America... other than in some high-end restaurant... the customer is generally right, and is generally catered too, even to the point of the ridiculous. In the end, the proprietor wants the money, and so will do anything to get it. In Europe, businesses seem indifferent to sales... at least by American standards. As a result, they don't appear to be catering to the customer.

BUT... this is an American thing. We want to be catered to. We want the store and it's offerings to be laid out in a clear fashion... for things to be labelled... for a price tag on each thing. We don't want to have ask the salesperson to go fetch some unusual thing from under the counter, or from the backroom. In fact, we have no knowledge of any backroom or hidden item. We presume everything is on the shelves.

Because of this, we don't feel like we're getting catered to. But again... this is an American thing. We want to "JUST LOOK".... we want to walk unencumbered in a well lit, well marked matrix of stuff and be maximally efficient in a private experience of shopping. In Europe, there is no "JUST LOOKING"... there is simply knowing what you probably want and engaging in a conversation with the proprietor (who presumes to know what's what). They will get it for you and you will buy it. This is the old-world way. America is not old-world.

There is no solution to this, other than the crushing effect of global capitalism and the power of online art merchandising to drive all brick-and-mortar stores out of business, and to force the European model out of existence. To a large extent this already exists, as much of the retail environment in Europe looks American anyhow.

BUT... when you are in these European art supply stores... you are (to some extent) not in America anymore... and the idea of customer service as beginning in clearly marked information is replaced by being serviced in a more controlled way (you ask, they tell you what they have).

I should amend my earlier statement and just say that European customer service isn't bad... it's just that by American Standards it is VERY BAD. And because it is authoritarian in nature, it doesn't lend itself to perusing and "Just Looking", which Americans love to do... because we love to shop... because we don't know what we want exactly... because Americans seek to identify themselves through material purchases... which is fucked up... but HEY... THAT IS AMERICAN.

In addition, because the authoritarian approach requires a submission to personal interaction (which Americans don't do well)... it relies on FOREIGN LANGUAGE SKILLS (that most Americans don't possess).

DESPITE THIS ANALYSIS.... however... I have to say that it still seems true that the mythic, old world supplies just don't exist anymore. One could (and probably will) insist that "YES, THEY HAVE THE MYTHIC SUPPLY BEHIND THE COUNTER, IF ONLY YOU SPOKE ITALIAN")... or "You should have gone to "such-and-such" art supply... they are the best"

But I don't believe that. Not after chasing down all these varied places and picking through all the stuff on their shelves. It's all the same old stuff, less of it, and more expensive. I think the only place left to find stuff is to (a) make it yourself, or (b) located those VERY FEW places in the world that actually have it, such as Kremer Pigments in New York City. I don't doubt the existence of places like this in Europe or elsewhere... but these are very singular places... I no longer believe that a general purpose art store, no matter HOW old-school their cool European environment, and not matter how long they have been in business, and no matter how many famous artists in the past bought canvases from them... everything has moved on... and everyone has basically the same stuff.

So go to them if you must, or if you're bored. Or better yet, go to them because by doing so you often get off the beaten tourist path. But don't expect to step back into time. I don't hate them.. well, I kind'a do... but it's more that I'm pissed. Because until I find some clay drawing chalks, I cannot draw like the artist of the quattrocento. It's all in the chalk.