When longtime Williamsburg residents Art Guerra, Seren Morey, and Jody Bretnall talk about paint, they don’t talk in standard shades of color, they talk in cultural references. Pigment PY24, also known as Flaventhrone, isn’t an off-white, it’s the pigment responsible for the cream-colored Buicks of the 1970s. Perylene Green Black (PBLK31) isn’t a dark green, it’s the hue used to paint stealth bombers, which incidentally, is “the most expensive pigment in existence,” says Guerra. When giving the WG a demo on mixing Guerra Paint’s pure and potent pigments into a white base to make the high caliber, endlessly customizable paint the shop is known for, Bretnall doesn’t make a red, he makes PR170. “The Original Ferrari Red.”
While painting a billboard in the East Village back in 1984, native San Franciscan Art Guerra made a discovery that would change the course of his career. He saw that large industrial jobs like billboard painting and automotive coloring combined pure chemical pigments (colorants) with large quantities of clear or white base to create colored paint. The systematic addition of these pigments to bases allows for great control over the saturation of a paint color, and a small amount of pigment can go a long way in coloring a base if the pigment is pure.
Guerra immediately recognized the value in the industrial pigment/base methodology, recognizing it could be both liberating and cost-effective for private artists. As a result, he has spent the last 23 years, with the help of Bretnall and Morey (who are husband and wife), trying to uncover the secrets of the intensively scientific pigment production process from the often uncooperative art material industries, whose bottom line is better served by offering artists more expensive premixed paints that don’t allow for nearly as much clarity or control. In their Williamsburg warehouse on Wythe Avenue, Guerra and company apply the knowledge they have culled doggedly over the years, taking pigments purchased from industrial art suppliers and uncovered in ancient warehouses, and prepping them for private artists’ use. Though they do sell pigment in the raw powder form used in big industry, Guerra’s most valuable service is their conversion of the powder into liquid dispersions that are often ten times more potent than dry pigment, and more easily added to paint bases.
“We’ve introduced this whole new technology, which has never been done before in the private artist world,” says Guerra.
Greenpoint-based artist and documentarian Bill Page, who has known Guerra since 1975, reminisces, “I started using [Guerra’s] paint before it ever went on the market. He would bring it over to my studio, when he was experimenting with for himself. The additives that you can get, the textures that you can get, the surfaces that you can get—it was beyond what artists knew they could get when Art started offering this.”
With the help of Morey, the chief financial officer, who began working for Guerra in 1998, and Bretnall, who came on as chief operating officer in 2003, Guerra, now the company president, managed to turn his dream into a legitimate business. All three were part of the initial wave of artists who settled in Williamsburg back when it was still, as Bretnall says, “a you-don’t-go-out-after-dark kind of place,” (Bretnall is originally from Philadelphia, and Morey from Massachusetts) and the team’s working dynamic reflects the comfort of people who have lived the last fifteen-to-twenty years running into each other at Kasia’s on Bedford and socializing at artist hangout The Right Bank on Kent and Broadway—until it closed in 2003.
Now, on any day but Sunday, one finds Bretnall manning the Guerra Paint front desk at the 13th Street shop (between A and B) in the East Village where the retail end of their business is located, designing the team’s new business cards or thumbing through industrial pigment manuals. Bretnall and Morey’s newborn baby girl, Maia June, might be slung at Morey’s midsection, miraculously sleeping as her mother zips around, taking inventory of the shop’s impeccably organized rainbow of liquid squeeze bottles and glass vials. Guerra, short and sprightly with his grey hair pulled back in a George Carlinesque ponytail, could be drawing a color wheel on the back of a greasy pizza box, or helping a quirky customer who only paints cat portraits and “love, love, looooove[s] glitter.”
Or maybe one can find the trio in their Williamsburg factory, rubber-gloved and safety-goggled, mastering the science of light and color, spinning chemicals into Quinachridone Gold (PO49).
Guerra, Morey and Bretnall all admit that though the system isn’t difficult to master, it does require some initial instruction. Says Guerra, “The big fly in the ointment is that we have to teach every artist that comes in here how to use this. We have to like, coach them, teach them, be willing to put up with lots of phone calls.”
But he insists once artists get the hang of mixing, all they have to do is pay attention to measurements, and they can create that same color over and over again, indefinitely.
“It’s like cooking,” says Bretnall.
“There’s a real dedication and loyalty that happens, because you can’t get [our pigments] anywhere else,” says Morey. “Also, you save a lot of money, and you make much better paint.”
A South Williamsburg-based company, Michael Allen Inc., who create plaster special finishes, have been using Guerra pigments for almost a decade, and owner, Cookie Brindle counts them as an integral part of their business. “We buy literally hundreds of pounds of pigments a year from them. Having access to them has made us better colorists, and known for cooking up beautiful colors.”
Another customer, Ben Knight, a North Carolina-based painter has been maximizing the capabilities of Guerra’s wares since 2003, says, “I recommend [the pigments] to everyone I know who paints.”
When asked what generally defines Guerra’s customers versus buyers of premixed paint, Bretnall says, “It’s usually a relatively non-consumer perspective.” This works in perfect balance with an organization whose primary objective is clearly not profit. “My goal was to have artists paint for pennies,” says Guerra. Though the store is robust enough to survive even in the tough economy, Guerra Paints operates on a business model that has an Artists-for-Artists mantra at its core. (Both Morey and Guerra are painters themselves, and Bretnall is a musician.)
Knight says, “If you are a serious artist and you don’t have a trust fund, a backer or even a gallery to help you pay for the sheer quantities of paint required to experiment and create, then this is the stuff you have got to use. It levels the playing field.”
The relative affordability of Guerra’s wares definitely accounts for its lack of competitors. That, and that fact that the pigment production system Guerra, Morey and Bretnall have mastered took over two decades to perfect. The expertise of the Guerra team is revered by their customers.
Knight says, “When you come to their store, you feel like you have been anointed into the world of the painting gods, and now it is your responsibility to create the most beautiful work anyone has ever seen.
After 23 years, Guerra Paints is still one of the only companies in the world producing pigments for artists’ personal use, and offers more colors than any other pigment distributor. In fact, Guerra is so specialized, in many instances they have the world’s supply of pigments on the verge of extinction, colors that have been discontinued for decades due to lack of demand from big industry. It’s not uncommon for Bretnall or Guerra to stop at the sprawling grid of color dispersions on their shop’s front wall and point at a color that will no longer exist after their supply has been tapped.
“Remember those ugly kitchens in the 1970s?” Bretnall asks. “Pigment Green 10.” He points to a shade of green slightly brighter than pea soup, also known as Nickel Azo. Guerra’s warehouse holds the last 250 pounds ever made.
“That’s the ugly ass green of the 70s,” says Bretnall. “We still have it.”