When the morning sun hits the brilliant trees of Central New York in autumn the world seems to glow with color. So during the hour-long trip to my daughter’s art class field trip, I enjoyed the artistic display splashed across the hills. It made me really appreciate the work done at our destination: Golden Artist Colors in New Berlin.
The small factory which makes and sells high-quality paint designed for fine art, is surrounded by forested hills, farm fields, and all the natural beauty of Upstate New York. It’s not where we’d expect to see a factory, but there’s a story to how it got there.
In 1936 Sam Golden joined his uncle Leonard Bocour in his Manhattan shop where he made hand-ground oil paint for artists. Sam and Leonard liked visiting with the artists who often gathered at the shop, and as they listened to their customers’ needs, ideas were born. Probably the most significant of those ideas was the application of acrylic resin to paint for art. Have you ever used acrylic paint? It was first developed by Sam Golden at Bocour Artist Colors in the late 1940s.
After a long and productive paint-making career in the city, Sam decided to retire to a farmhouse in the Upstate NY countryside. But it wasn’t long before he was drawn back to making paint. Together with his wife Adele, son Mark, daughter-in-law Barbara, and business partner Chuck Kelly, Golden Artist Colors was born in a renovated barn in 1980.
Barbara and her daughter Emma led my daughter and her classmates on the factory tour we took and shared lots of stories along the way.
When they started, the Goldens didn’t even have their own telephone line, using instead a party line serving several houses on their road. Neighbors would often take orders for them and relay the messages. The Goldens drove the four-hour trip to New York City weekly at first to fulfill orders and introduce their paint to new clients. But after about five years their reputation for excellent paint spread and the business began to grow.
Listening to and Honoring the Needs of Artists
Sam wanted to compete based on quality and not just on price, and the company has stayed true to that value ever since. The importance of listening to the needs of artists, which Sam learned during his years in Manhattan, seems to be the cornerstone of the business still today. When artists call the company with questions about anything from the properties of Golden products to a specific color request, no recorded voice will greet them. A friendly human – Melissa – directs the call to make sure the customer’s needs are heard.
Many innovations have come from these special requests. One day an artist called and said he was working on a very large piece with thick texturing. It was so heavy his canvas was pulling off the stretcher. So Golden Artist Colors developed Light Molding Paste to solve the problem. We passed around a large jar of the paste and it was so light it felt almost empty.
Many times artists call with a request to produce a larger quantity of a color they mixed on their palette. Golden’s lab technicians use high-tech tools to analyze and match the color. Then the factory can produce a few gallons or whatever is needed. They keep the formula on file too in case the artist needs more of that color even ten years later.
One particularly interesting request came from the Denver Zoo. An artist was working on a mural for the lion exhibit and needed paint that was resistant to scratching, urine and power washing. Of course Golden was up to the task.
Always Working to Make the Best Paint for Artists
We met Lara Scott, R&D Lab Tech, who showed us some of her tools for developing and perfecting new products to serve the needs of artists. She explained how she tries to “break the paint” to see how it will react in all kinds of temperatures and humidity levels. Golden Artist Colors never puts an expiration date on their paints. They test and improve their products to make sure they’re stable over long periods of time.
We want artists to have a pleasant enjoyable experience with our paint. ~Lara Scott, R&D Lab Tech
Real Life Samples for Every Artist
When the company first began, it would have been a waste of limited funds to commercially print charts showing each color of paint they made, especially when they knew they would soon be adding more colors. So Adele Golden hand-painted swatches of the colors they wanted to offer to stores and artists on sheets of paper while sitting at her kitchen table. It turns out artists loved this because they could see what the actual paint inside the tubes looked like when it dried. Now, employees paint a small sample of each of 109 colors on charts to send out to customers. They even sign their names to it.
“It feels like our artwork is in their studio.” ~Barbara Golden
This is especially useful for the textured mediums they produce. How does a medium containing glass beads or pumice look when it dries? That would be hard to describe precisely on a label. So employees hand paint the products on “shelf talkers” which they send to stores to display what’s in the jars and tubes.
And the same goes for each label and every tube of paint produced at Golden Artist Colors. We stopped by the room where two women were hand painting samples from the exact batch of paint onto the labels for the containers it would be sold in. Artists really know what they’re getting when they buy Golden products.
Working at Golden Artist Colors
The company is employee-owned and has created jobs for about 200 people, most of them from the local area. Safety, work-life balance, and camaraderie are all important factors in their company culture. There’s even a pool table in the brightly decorated lunchroom. Because employees own stock in the company, they’re motivated to offer ideas for greater efficiency and their ideas are taken into account and implemented.
Photography on the factory floor isn’t permitted, so I’ll have to paint a word picture for you: Smiling workers dressed in jeans and tee-shirts guide brilliantly colored paint through sparkling clean machinery that mixes, grinds and vacuums the air out of the paint. Upbeat music plays over the speakers. Everything is neat and tidy.
Clean Factory and Clean Environment
Golden Artist Colors’ commitment to quality extends to the beautiful surrounding countryside too. They use water from their own wells in their production process and never pour wastewater into the ground or streams. Instead, they have a completely enclosed system of holding tanks and filters which clean the water of all solids. A reverse osmosis system further cleans the water. Then it’s tested and hauled to a water treatment plant in Norwich, NY.
Impressed with the spirit of innovation at Golden Artist Colors, I asked Barbara if they’re trying to find a way to use the cakes of solids taken from the wastewater in some new kind of paint. Oh yes, they are, she told me.
Given how Golden Artist Colors’ success is based on its attention to the needs of artists, it’s not surprising that they go to great lengths to encourage art. The Sam and Adele Golden Foundation for the Arts hosts a residency program that provides working artists a chance to explore innovative new ways to use Golden’s products.
Notes from grateful artists all over the world describing how they have used Golden Artist Colors products fill a large wall at the factory.
Without a doubt, Golden Artist Colors puts abundant care and dedication into their products, and I’m really glad to know they’re a part of the vibrant artistic and entrepreneurial life of Central New York.