A career creating colourful gloop
The sight of an old master was enough to change Michael Harding’s life.
He began playing around with art materials; hand grinding his own paints. Before he knew it, he had a company. Michael Harding Art Formulas Ltd is today recognised worldwide as one of the best in the business.
The 58-year-old, who was in Bermuda last week as a judge for the Bermuda Plein Air Festival, insists it wasn’t an easy ride.
“All I left school with was A-level art, basically,” he said. “I was dyslexic and flunked all my other exams. It didn’t trouble me at the time because I was a 16-year-old aspiring artist. I walked into the National Gallery and saw the self-portrait Rembrandt did at age 34. I thought, ‘Why can’t I paint like this?’ Clearly, genius was missing. But material was also missing. I returned to college and talked to people who told me that artists used to make their own. I thought, ‘Why can’t I?’”
He picked up “one or two books” and began creating out of his one-room apartment.
The materials didn’t have the desired effect on his painting — he saw only “slight improvement” — but his friends were lining up as customers.
His big break came when the Victoria & Albert Museum got in touch, wanting a batch of his prized Stack Lead White. The paint is made the traditional way, suspending lead strips over vinegar and burying it beneath horse manure for a period of no less than three months. V&A needed it to restore an organ Mozart played that had been damaged by a fire in the early 19th century at Fonthill Abbey, a large Gothic revival country house in Wiltshire, England.
The museum spent three years scraping off the panels with dental tools before commissioning Mr Harding’s help.
He then launched his company in 1982.
“But even if you have a great product, it doesn’t mean you can run a business,” he said.
“I didn’t go to LSE [London School of Economics], I just went to art school. Everyone who runs a business can tell you how everything takes five times as long as you think and costs five times as much. The quality of my product saved my business but stole my time. If it had been anything less I wouldn’t have succeeded.”
Michael Harding Art Formulas Ltd runs out of a 17,000-square-foot colour mill in South Wales. Mr Harding and a team of about 11 artisans craft 93 colours by hand including a “gorgeous” selection inspired by Bermuda. It takes between six and nine months to bring a paint to market; even the labels are handcrafted.
Noted artists David Hockney, the late Lucien Freud, Sir Howard Hodgkin, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili are all fans. The company was also listed in
“For over 160 years there has been a steady decline and a serious lack of interest in the true nature and potential of oil paints,” Mr Harding said.
“The result is that very few artists have had an understanding of how to paint a picture that will not deteriorate over time, because they do not understand art materials. Now, however, there is a plea from artists for quality materials due to better education and knowledge of what is contained in commercially manufactured oil paints.
“Artists who pay attention to quality require products without fillers or driers because these unnecessary additives compromise the longevity of paintings
“Because my products do not contain fillers or driers, artists who try my oil colours are impressed by the brilliance of colour, coverage and tinting power along with a buttery, smooth texture.”
For a while it was enough and then, in the late 1980s, life took a nosedive.
“I didn’t do any advertising apart from one disaster which left me bankrupt,” said Mr Harding, explaining how the actions of a smooth-talking executive left him with no choice but to walk away from the company.
He found it impossible, however, to give up on his beloved oils. Customers kept calling and, before he knew it, he was back in business.
“I’m not someone who has to [create] art or I go into withdrawal,” said Mr Harding, who claimed he’s been on sabbatical since a commission in the 1990s.
“What I love is creating paint and colourful goop. There was a point back in the 90s when I had a specialist mixing machine and it broke down. I searched England high and low, I was totally broke, and found a machine for £2,750 — I had to empty my pocket to pay. Two days later I won the lottery. On the Saturday I played and on the Monday I won £2,722. Someone smiled on me.
“Call it fate, call it whatever you want. I jokingly say it’s the old masters making something right.”
He admitted there has been pressure to mechanise the process — something the company will never do.
“We are very much a family-oriented business,” said his wife Karyn.
“We have not changed. There are no fake colours, everything is done in a considerate time in a way that speaks to our brand. Other companies talk about mass productions, ours is a quality product people can enjoy that is close to what the old masters would have used and we have no intent of changing that. We would rather put time and effort into a product.”
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