Earth & Rowan, Eco-Friendly Art Supplies
Dublin artist Pauline Rowan wasn’t satisfied with the art materials she and her students were using in their work. Most were filled with petrochemicals and were harmful to the artists and damaging to the environment. Rowan is a prolific photographer and videographer, a filmmaker, a painter, an illustrator and an art instructor. She is also an ecopreneur and the founder of Earth & Rowan.
It would have been easier for Rowan to disappear into the world of art, never stepping outside the roles of artist and teacher. But Rowan took action to solve a problem that has troubled other artists for decades. She shared her story with me in an interview by email from her studio in Dublin. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL:How did you, as a young artist, approach art materials manufacturers with your idea?
ROWAN: I told them I was looking for these exact products and that I believed they should be more widely available. I was lucky that some of my many emails and phone calls to various people and groups were eventually fruitful. Some of those early dead ends may yet turn out to be productive also.
When I found what I had been looking for, I wanted to share it, because I knew through talking to people and stores that I had not been the only person looking for these products. There is great potential for growth in this company.
BPGL: Do you get involved with any of the experimentation of your products?
ROWAN: As this whole adventure is in its early stages, there is constant feedback between myself and the makers of the various products, such as how we could improve or change some products slightly for specific markets, for example, products suitable for children.
When I was over in Italy earlier in the year visiting the makers of our liquid watercolours, we spent time experimenting with various mixtures of pigments, mediums and binders for a new Hemp Oil Paint, which I hope will be ready soon.
BPGL: Do your suppliers package their products with your label, or have they substantially designed a product line just for you? How much are you involved in the business?
ROWAN: I usually commission products to my criteria. The products themselves can change in the early stages, such as changes in consistency or changes to colour ranges. It is a group activity I guess. Initially, commissioned products would have come to me without any labeling or maybe basic handmade labels. I then designed and printed new labels, attaching them myself — which is a lot of work! I felt it important that all products would be labeled under one name, Earth & Rowan, yet also crediting the individual makers.
Now, most of the products come with these Earth & Rowan labels on them as this saves on waste and time. Other products come with codes for labeling. Some products come in as big rocks! I have to hammer the Grey Slate into smaller pieces for packaging into drawing material selection boxes (a nice Christmas or birthday present, by the way).
This is how things work at present and I am sure this will continue to be streamlined as the business develops. Presently I am running Earth & Rowan on my own. I am secretary, delivery person, salesperson, buyer, designer, packer, photographer etc. It seems like a lot of work but I keep lists and am economical with time.
BPGL: Your Egg-Oil Emulsion reportedly smells great. Tell us more about the aroma.
ROWAN: The Egg-Oil Emulsion/Tempera Grasse smells like lemon cheesecake. (Others have noted a hint of vinegar, which is used as preservative.) It can make me hungry when I am working with it! And if I am using a palette knife, as well, it can really add to the feeling of icing a cake. But please do not to eat it. It is not food.
BPGL: As a charcoal portrait artist for 15 years, I used just about every coal and ash product on the planet. What will I like about your Willow Charcoal? What special qualities does it have?
ROWAN: The charcoal I currently stock is from a producer in Yorkshire, England. I do hope to get a small producer here on the island of Ireland also to keep it local.
Our charcoal is deep black and clings to the paper well when used. Sometimes with other charcoals, the charcoal falls away from the page and only leaves a dull brown scrape on the paper. Our charcoal is almost like a compressed charcoal and comes not only in willow sticks but also in chunks. We stock a wide, growing, variety of raw drawing materials including Sanguine Chalk, Graphite, Grey Slate, Sienna and Green Earth.
BPGL: Please don’t take this next question wrong, but I have to ask it. I’ve spoken with a few artist friends who are vegan. When they visited your website, they had concerns about the use of the ink sacs of the cuttlefish, the harvesting of the cochineal insect, and the use of milk and eggs. These are all things that are going to distract animal rights groups from your attempts to free art supplies from the evils of petroleum and polymers. How do you answer these critics?
ROWAN: My first concern has been the environment, and I have endeavored to bring environmentally friendly art materials to the public, products that have been made without the use of petrochemicals and also using natural pigments all sourced locally in Europe. These are the rules that I made my business to. They are very tight rules. In following this route I have returned to many of the traditional methods of preparing and making paints and inks. In order, therefore, to not use synthetic mediums and solvents, we have used milk and eggs. Vegans and animal rights groups can avoid Sepia & Carmine and hang in there — we will have our Hemp Oil paint ready soon!
BPGL: What is next? Any new art supply products in mind?
ROWAN: I just got in some beautiful large watercolour disks that come packaged in cardboard. On the cards Earth & Rowan also has lined up Children’s & School Paints and Hemp Oil Paint! I am always looking for individual small-scale producers of natural art products, dye makers, papermakers etc. I would like to support as many as I can. If their products are creativity related — I’m interested.
BPGL: Typically, green products cost a little more. Are you finding that artists are receptive to eco-friendly art supplies?
ROWAN: Green products usually do cost a little more and the cost reflects the products’ quality and the time and care put into producing them. I have found that artists are receptive to eco-friendly art supplies and some find them a more authentic material to work with. A lot of artists can be creatures of habit and do find it difficult to try new materials. As consumers, we all get used to expecting certain products in certain containers and packaging. When something new comes along, it can take a little while for the public to accept it.
Take for example the plastic bag levy here in Ireland. Ten years ago, all shopping was brought home from the store in a plastic bag, the bag was then thrown away. Thousands of plastic bags littered the hedgerows of Ireland. The idea of reusing or using a canvas shopping bag simply wasn’t heard of. Now asking for a plastic bag in a store is considered irresponsible and a waste of money.
(The plastic bag levy is a charge of 22c that is paid to the government towards the environment on every plastic bag used in stores. The customer, at the cash til, pays the charge. The result was that people didn’t want to pay it and so brought their own reusable or canvas bags. It started the whole “this is not a shopping bag” bag.)
BPGL: How strong is the green movement in Ireland? Are people environmentally aware and trying to make changes, as you are doing?
ROWAN: In general, I believe people are environmentally aware here. The government has twinned together saving money with saving the environment. There’s a great effort to teach environmentalism in the schools.
Car road tax is based on the car’s emissions. Houses for sale are graded by their Energy Efficiency. Every home has a Green Bin, a Black Bin and some have a Brown Bin — for compost materials all collected from the door. Ireland is intending to cease the sale of traditional light bulbs — only long-life environmentally friendly ones would be allowed. The Green Party has a major role to play in our government — they share the running of the country. There is a lot more that can be done. I would like to see cycle lanes taken off the road and put in a safer position on the pavement. Cycling in the city at the moment can only be described as terrifying.
BPGL: I see that you are a video artist and a photographer, and that you teach drawing, but I could not find any of your paintings online. Could you tell us where to find a photo of a Pauline Rowan painting with Earth and Rowan paint?
ROWAN: As an artist I would use various media from photography to painting and in-between. I recently showed ink drawing and watercolours at two different exhibitions in Dublin. I also exhibited photographs from Showroom Series at a 2004 exhibition in Dublin.
BPGL: Having your own line of “natural art supplies” has obviously gained you some attention, and soon you will become a huge corporate magnate swimming in money. Will this eventually distract you from your art? What are your goals?
ROWAN: I do not believe that Earth & Rowan will distract me from being an artist. If anything it has benefited my art practice. I really would see that the attention gained by starting Earth & Rowan will go back into building it as a business for the small producers involved and myself. And also highlighting that there are eco-friendly alternatives out there and we can all do something to help.
I would hope that one day Earth & Rowan could open a small premise in which there would not only be a shop selling Earth & Rowan products but with a space for learning about art materials and a gallery space.
BPGL: How does the future look for Earth & Rowan “natural” art supplies?
ROWAN: The more my company develops, the more faith these smaller producers will have that people really do, indeed want their products. Then they will start making larger batches of the products they use in their own art practices. That will subsidize their income and help spread the word that there is an alternative out there. I see Earth and Rowan as a means to help small producers connect with a market that would not have found them.
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