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I wrote this article on request for a restorer working for the University of Delaware creating a public forum for artists to post their questions about the chemical components of art materials and the effects they have on their painting practices. She is now working with such a forum, indispensable to us painters, saving thousands of hours of research. AMIEN was a symposium which disbanded and left a vacuum until now. MITRA,

Ever since I turned professional (part of some 40+ years of painting), I have upgraded my techniques and materials. When I send my art students to an art store for supplies, I tell them, “It’s a jungle out there.” Without exception, major questions arise on what to buy in every single arena, whether paints, surfaces to paint on, brushes, mediums, or varnishes.

These trips force questions to the surface which I am not prepared to answer, and not from lack of trying. These choices are not fun ones; they are not cosmetic at all. Once I sold my first $3000 portrait I upgraded my materials and painted it on a Belgian linen canvas. (It had to be restored.) I joined the Portrait Society of America, attend their conference annually, and learned from buying at their kiosk that most of what was sold at major art dealers was craft product, not designed for the serious artist, but for the throwaway market that attracted customers who wouldn’t find them in the 20 years they stayed a-float to complain. As I continued to find expert resources I drained every bit of information I could contain from them and upgraded further, swimming through masses of conflicting data and input, through purchases of shoddy to great materials, and never knowing which was which. I have one book I refer to above all others for expert advice. The old books, like Meyers, have been superseded and outdated by current product and understanding.

My knowledge grid is now one that has wildly divergent arrows which would take up a side wall.

One of my biggest downers as a professional artist was finding out how fugitive my favorite color, alizarin crimson is, and how careful an artist had to be about mixing what I consider all the “pretty” colors.

Had I known oil painting harbored such numerous pitfalls witnessed by the unseen cloud of restorations through the centuries, and was rife with chemical and logical incompatibilities, I might not have braved entry into oil painting at all.

That said, I am a water-colorist as well, which also presents multiple technical problems, but to my mind, not so many.

Here is a recent conversation for you:

Me: I didn’t realize zinc came in acrylic gesso.
Expert: OH WAIT I MISSPOKE MYSELF….I have not had caffeine yet. SO SORRY.
Me: So I’m really at a standstill.
Expert: Zinc in acrylic is FINE, as far as we know.
Me: It just shouldn’t be in oil gesso, or ‘real’ gesso.
Expert: Right.
Me (after further research): But every manufacturer puts this in their gesso.
Expert: Well, yes. It happened once lead, the sturdiest white, was taken off of the market.
Me: So none of my paintings are going to last.
Expert: Unless you affix it to a rigid support… Unless you prime with lead with no zinc in it… Unless you find the one man in the U.S. that does this work… But then you must find the right rigid support, like tin or aluminum or copper or wood panel or hardboard panel.
Me (after researching each one of these): Each one of these has its own problems. And in the end, you can’t get large surfaces ready made anywhere. (Meanwhile, the price of my portraits had just tripled).
Expert: Well, some manufacturers teach you how to attach linen canvas to different surfaces.
Me: So now I’m into time-consuming prep work, expensive courses, and more time. My schedule already stinks, it’s so full. When can I paint?
Expert: Yes. It’s not so hard, once you’re into it.
Me: So, what if I return to fake gesso, acrylic gesso?
Expert: The main concern with acrylic grounds is quality. There can be tons of surfactants and other additives, especially if the company is outsourcing in China.
Me: Dang. One should marry a materials expert.

Take one of the good-guy companies in an area that is fraught with disaster, varnishing, and look at their disclaimer.
“Disclaimer: The above information is based on research and testing done by X Artists Colors, and is provided as a basis for understanding the potential uses in established oil painting and printmaking techniques using the products mentioned. X Artists Colors cannot be sure the product will be right for you. Therefore, we urge product users to carefully read the label, instructions and product information for each product and to test each application to ensure all individual project requirements are met – particularly when developing one’s own technique. While we believe the above information is accurate, WE MAKE NO EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND WE SHALL IN NO EVENT BE LIABLE FOR ANY DAMAGES (INDIRECT, CONSEQUENTIAL OR OTHERWISE) THAT MAY OCCUR AS A RESULT OF A PRODUCT APPLICATION.”

Am I the only artist into whose heart that strikes terror? No.
Expert #1: If the satin varnish has matting agents this will be a problem and could result in a “frosted glass” effect (re-varnishing on top of glossy with a mat varnish).
Expert #2: Yes, actually Expert #1 is right about that. Conservators are able to get away with applying satin (higher molecular weight varnishes) over your average more glossy varnishes (lower molecular weight varnishes) because we make our own varnishes from scratch….There is a dire need to survey what is in all of these proprietary varnishes.
Expert #3: It is zinc in oil that is a problem.

Many of us run right along in total ignorance where angels fear to enter, assuming the seller has OUR INTERESTS AT HEART. My gosh, I remember first learning in my Old Master’s watercolor training in Germany that ox gall, which

dissolves fat in water to prevent oily resists in watercolor, was deadly poisonous. To date, I have never even seen a skull and crossbones on a bottle. Do paints containing cadmium have label warnings? We assume happily the truth of one of the most popular American phrases of the century, “It’s gonna be all right.” And this happens in what the general public would consider more important than how long their painting will last.

“Really?” With luck, perhaps, maybe…. but then, probably not. Who can we trust? Why will manufacturers not tell us what is in their products? Why are so many processes hidden in multiple, indiscernible layers? Why must the consumer roll back middleman after middleman and waste time when a manufacturer could have simply disclosed the materials he used. Why does one of the most reputable sellers going tell a customer, “In all the years I’ve worked here, no one has ever asked that question”? about the exact components in primed canvases and says he’ll take it further after their first hundred or so inquiries. Gee, thanks.

The industry has turned craft instead of artist. The industry does not have long-term vision. The industry is not worried about liability. The industry profits on the artist while BYPASSING THE ARTIST’S NEED TO KNOW AND MAKE GOOD, DISCERNING DECISIONS.

Having seen all of this without a doubt, I would like to proclaim an Artist’s Manifesto:

* We Artists need an independently run forum where we can ask questions regarding materials and techniques.
* We Artists need a platform in which to interact with conservators, scientists, and industry representatives.
* We Artists need help navigating the ever-growing world of commercially available art materials.
* We Artists need to be heard and listened to in every area of art product manufacturing and design.
* We Artists need to KNOW what we’re dealing with.

To do so, we need to be able to ask questions of those with the knowledge base we are crying for, and which we could only navigate if we gave up our own call to paint. Happily that day is here.

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