Few of us know the name, but every artist who paints owes a tremendous debt to John G. Rand. He was an American portrait painter living in England in the early 1840s. However virtually no one recalls his work. He was also an inventor. And if he was forgotten as an artist, he's hardly any better remembered as an inventor either. Yet every day, every painter amongst us uses his invention. In 1841, John G. Rand invented the collapsible zinc paint tube. It had a "stopper" rather than the twist-off cap ours do today, but otherwise was virtually identical. Before that, paint manufacturers sold their pigments to artist in dry form, or in soft bladders made of skins. Of course the painter had to puncture the skin somewhere in order to squeeze the paint out, and in doing so, often caused it to split, or at least, the paint near the hole had a tendency to harden, and in digging out the dried paint, the hole often grew larger and larger as the contents were used over a period of months. Attempts were even made to sell oil paints in brass syringes lined with tin (much like our old metal cake decorators) but that was hardly any better.
Immediately, Windsor & Newton of London started using Rand's tubes made of thinly rolled metal, and in the process set off something of a chain reaction of more inventions designed with the artist in mind. The paint tubes made it convenient for artists to begin painting outdoors so along came portable, folding easels, then folding palettes, and portable paint boxes. And in that the mass-produced paint was more "buttery" in consistency than what artists used to make themselves, they began using stiff, hog's-hair brushes and palette knifes with which to apply paint to their canvases, which created a whole new line of "inventions."
And speaking of canvases, about the same time Windsor & Newton and others began manufacturing pre-stretched canvases in standard sizes already primed with white gesso and ready for painting. The Impressionists in France especially took to these new developments. They loved the consistent, brilliant colours of the tube paints and the brilliant whiteness of the pre-stretched, pre-primed canvases. They felt it added luminosity to their work. Moreover, all these technical developments also added a good deal of convenience for artists, while virtually eliminated the need for studio assistants (or for artists to have to do these menial tasks themselves).
A short time later, for those starving artists whom could ill-afford the luxury of pre-stretched canvas, manufacturers began applying gesso to heavy paper and later, stiff cardboard. Eventually a thin muslin was stretched over the cardboard first to give it a familiar canvas texture, and the mainstay of every amateur artist on earth became what we now call canvas board. Surprisingly, with a good, sturdy frame, these humble painting grounds have stood the test of time remarkably well. Matisse and Picasso both used them at times, especially in forming a rigid base for their collaged works, while at the same time proving to the art world that painters didn't necessarily even need paint to "paint."
And after the Second World War, as the world became familiar with polymers (plastics) of all kinds, so did artists. During the 1950s, major artists such as Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and David Hockney all explored and embraced acrylic paints with their brilliant, fast-drying, and colour fast qualities, allowing them to develop new and different painting styles and techniques while maintaining many of the most attractive attributes of oils. More recently, artists have turned to various industrial paints if for no other reason than economy. With painted works often exploding to building-size murals, traditional artists' pigments in tubes, or even gallon buckets, were no longer practical. I know it's hard, but can you imagine buying your paint in 55-gallon drums? I think I'll stick to our friend Mr. Rand's soft, metal tubes, though personally, make mine acrylics with a spry synthetic bristle on the side.