Source: The Financial Review
He is called the pigment whisperer for his magical touch creating exquisite hand made oil paints.
Arylide Lemon. Phthalo Blue. Napthol Red. Dioxazine Violet. They sound like ingredients in a Hogwarts spell but are in fact the technical names for the jewel colours from a newly released range of artists’ paints created by a man best described as a pigment whisperer.
David Coles is the mastermind behind Langridge, a Melbourne-based boutique maker of high-end handmade oil paints, the only one of its kind in Australia.
That Melbourne address is a key selling point. “We thought very carefully and decided that this was the place most associated with innovation and culture in Australia,”says Brit expat Coles. “We believe it will give us an edge in terms of the export market Melbourne is perceived as being cool in a way that other cities are not.”
Freshly back from a trade fair in Germany, Coles believes the time is right to sell his niche product overseas, playing David to the Goliath of global brands like Windsor and Newton.
“We are taking our cue from the success of our wines overseas in new markets like China,” says Coles, citing that industry’s disruptive methods as an example of the kind of entrepreneurial philosophy he favours.
“Australian wines took on a very traditional old market and delivered exactly what the consumer wanted in terms of quality, price and convenience. We think we can do the same in what has historically been an equally conservative market.”
Coles is eyeing up China with the help of his online staffer Kim Vernon, a fluent Mandarin speaker. “We are looking at how to get our product onto Taobao, which is the biggest e-commerce site in China. The timing is good, as China is very keen on Australian branded products.”
Coles, 50, controls every aspect of the brand, including its slightly antiseptic old world aesthetic; the labelling makes his glass bottles and tubes look as if they belong in a medicine cabinet. He has borrowed their appearance quite shamelessly from successful companies like UK pharmacy and food retailer Neal’s Yard, to emphasise the purity of his ingredients.
Most of Langridge’s new palette is organic. Just don’t try eating the paints.
While the classically handsome Coles appears in the company catalogue smeared in paint, wearing an apron so stained that he looks like a very messy cook, the day I meet him he is dressed from head to toe in impeccable black. His skill in creating new shades suggests the subtlety of a spice blender or a nose in a perfume company creating a new scent: it’s science with a dash of high-performance magic.
Coles recently hired a full-time paint maker to add to his team of six full time staff. He is now negotiating with distributors in the US and Canada. Social media has brought new enquiries from Europe through the company’s website.
“Overseas artists are giving us very positive feedback. We are talking to a New York retailer about being our unique stockist there, giving us a boutique outlet at the epicentre of the art world.”
Langridge’s production has ramped up to 2500 litres of oil paint by the end of the current financial year. That is an increase of 35 per cent on last year to accommodate increased local demand. While Langridge has just a 5 per cent share of the artist’s paints market (across its whole portfolio, which includes solvents and other products), turnover has doubled from $620,000 in 2010 to $1.2 million today.
APPRENTICE TURNED MASTER
Coles began his career in paint as an apprentice to Cornelissen, one of the world’s oldest and most reputable artist’s paints suppliers in the United Kingdom. Established in 1855 in London, early customers included Whistler and Beardsley. Coles arrived in Australia in 1990 on holiday as a would-be artist. Two years later, he instead founded Langridge (named after the Melbourne street where he started the business).
Tucked away in a corner warehouse of Yarraville not far from the hipster cafes of nearby Spotswood, with a flagship store run by his wife Louise in South Melbourne, Langridge now has more than one hundred stockists around the country.
Coles sources his ingredients from faraway lands – 22 of them. No country is too remote or off limits in his quest for purity and quality. If you want the world’s best lapis lazuli, used to make true ultramarine, a colour with an almost electric intensity, you have to trade with Afghanistan he says. “I have a dealer in Karachi who supplies me with lazurite that comes from its original source at Badashkan, a stopover on the Silk Route, where it has been mined for 6000 years.”
Fortunately, other sources are less dangerous. The best burnt sienna still comes from Tuscany, as do the ochres found in the hills behind Verona, just as they were in the time of Piero della Francesca and Leonardo. Cadmium orange comes from Derbyshire, where it has been extracted for more than 130 years.
Coles talks about his colours with almost fatherly affection. “Some are compliant [arylide yellow], others are naughty: the umbers are thirsty and require a lot of oil. The dioxazine violet took seven passes to get right. Some need a bit of gentle teasing,” he says, referring to the process of manufacture, which takes place daily via a 50-year-old German processing mill with triple granite rollers originally used for cocoa. “It is a bit like making confectionery” says Coles, who uses words like “buttery” and “clotted” to describe the textures of pigments as they ooze from the machine. The factory floor is spotless.
BOLD NEW CONCEPT
As well as the traditional palette of colours, this year Langridge has developed a bold new concept: a range of predominantly transparent shades formulated specifically for Australian light, taking the company from its original 19 to the current 56 colours.
“Our objective is to have 80 in the next two and half years, but that depends on being able to deliver shades that are unique,” says Coles.
“Australian artists have a higher key colour awareness than northerners.”
“When Europeans want to paint trees, they choose an olive or a sap green. In Australia, especially among younger artists, they want something more brilliant, almost with a hint of fluoro’ says Coles, who does not take sole credit for Langridge’s alchemy. Some of it happens by accident, “like when they invented Guinness.” he laughs. “That’s how we created a new, not yet released shade I am calling Video Green” – part of a series of brilliant hues. Fans include Archibald winner Nicholas Harding, Rick Amor and Richard Lewer.
‘We’ve put more heat into our zinc blue to capture an Australian summer sky,” explains Coles, citing David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet as a source of inspiration for the new collection. He also gets ideas from fiction: “Bulgakov and Marquez describe a boosted, augmented reality of hyper chromatic colours,” he says.
Perhaps Coles has a uniquely tuned sensibility, a kind of synesthesia which can translate words into colours just as Kandinsky turned sound into colour.
CURRENCY RISK MANAGEMENT
Even when Coles is not creating new colours for commercial sale, he can’t help dabbling and experimenting, cooking up 14th century recipes for obscure media like walnut ink made from nut shells. Although not trained as a chemist, he loves combining the rigour of using a scientific formula with artistic flair. Meanwhile, Langridge’s genial general manager Brendan Byatt, who spent years in the horticultural sector before joining Coles, keeps his eye on currency fluctuations and world markets: “We lock in currency rates for a year to keep some stability, but it’s not guaranteed. Four years ago the price of Titanium White went through the roof due to demand from China and India.”
A deal that resulted in Langridge becoming the exclusive Australian distributor of US company Golden Artist Colours, makers of professional-grade acrylic paints, has increased the range of products Langridge can offer for sale and helped to generate additional capital. Growth has been steady. So, no matter how many colours they add to their repertoire, it looks like Langridge won’t be in the red any time soon.