Technical Column by Virgil Elliott

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Technical Column

by Virgil Elliott

(A series of articles by scholars and painters on the art of the masters.)

The Materials of the Masters by guest contributor, Virgil Elliott

As part of the Art Renewal Center's mission to restore high standards of performance to the Fine Arts, and particularly painting, I will begin my first column as a guest contributor by stressing the importance of a conscientious attitude toward the craft aspect of painting. Had not the Old Masters considered it important to use the best, most permanent materials they could find, in the proper manner, we would not know their works today, and could not learn their exquisite lessons, so essential to the perfecting of our own art. I will caution the reader not to misconstrue this emphasis to mean that concern for materials and technique is everything in art; certainly, it is not, but it has been overlooked and neglected for so long that I believe it is appropriate to bring it into the picture and place it in its proper perspective at this time. There are now quite a few very good painters rising from the ashes of the Twentieth Century, and some of them are already passing their knowledge along to the next generation of artists, their protégés and heirs to the tradition. Thus it is of paramount importance that, once again, the knowledge of sound craftsmanship be included in the training of artists, and be made available to anyone interested in learning it. Posterity is the ultimate judge of an artist's worth, and those whose works decompose prematurely will lose by default.

Among the many fine painters living today, whose artistry and imagery have reached high levels, there is an alarming degree of acceptance of materials of questionable permanence, and widespread ignorance on the subject. This is yet another consequence of the Twentieth Century, when legitimate fine art instruction virtually ceased to exist for several generations. How many aspiring young artists were deprived, in the Twentieth Century, of the excellent instruction they sought, craved, needed -instruction which was once much more widely available, prior to the drought that was the Twentieth Century? My purpose in teaching and writing, including writing this column, is and will be to help correct that deficiency and set art and art instruction back on the Right Track. The best artists living today are creating works fully worthy of preservation, and posterity should not be deprived of their excellence.

I will approach the subject from a scientific standpoint, as it would be foolish indeed to ignore the discoveries being made by modern science, both in the development of better and more permanent materials, and in the field of conservation science, whose on-going research is continually unraveling the mysteries of the Old Masters' materials and techniques, which provide information on the relative permanence of the materials involved.

Whereas there are a great many artists who feel that the secret to the Old Masters' brilliance lies, at least in part, in employing the same materials they used, I feel this line of thinking overlooks a very important fact: the Old Masters used the best materials that were available to them in their time, in the interest of preserving their works as far into the future as possible. We would be operating more in the spirit of the Old Masters by using the best materials available to us, today, than by insisting on using what we believe was being used three hundred years ago. A great deal has been written about what the Old Masters supposedly used, and how they used it, yet most of it was essentially guesswork, speculation, conclusions drawn based on too little evidence, given greater credence than is warranted by virtue of its having been published in print. Furthermore, recent discoveries from conservation scientists, analyzing paint samples from Old Master paintings being restored, have proved much of the speculation of the past 150 years to have been in error. No doubt this is alarming news to so many artists who have invested a great deal of time and trouble in creating works following what they thought were sound practices, read in old books purporting to contain the "lost secrets of the Old Masters." I have no doubt I will encounter much resistance to the information I bring to light here, as I often do in my teaching, private conversations and correspondence with other artists who have fallen in love with the way they painted and the things they painted with for so many years. To them, and for them, I am sorry, but the truth is better acknowledged than ignored. There are consequences to consider.

Now that I have provided some insight into my thought processes, it is time to go into specifics. There are two widespread practices in common use today which may well spell disaster for the paintings thus produced, which bear addressing before anything else. The first of these is painting in oils on canvas primed with acrylic emulsion grounds, incorrectly called "gesso." There have been enough instances of delamination, that is, the peeling off of the oil paint layer at the interface between the acrylic emulsion primer and the dried oil paint, that conservation scientists at the Smithsonian Institute Museum Support Center are currently conducting tests and experiments to determine the cause of these problems. As these investigations are not yet complete, it would be premature to pronounce the practice unsafe with certainty, but there is reason, at this point, to regard the manufacturers' assurances that these primers are suitable for oil painting with a healthy degree of skepticism and doubt. The very fact that delaminations have occurred should raise alarm bells in the mind of every conscientious painter. The next question to be answered is, "What, then, should we use?" I shall waste no words in answering; the alkyd-based grounds show every indication of outperforming even the highly permanent traditional ground of white lead in linseed oil. Rabbitskin glue as a sizing for canvas is now known to be a major factor in the cracking of old paintings on canvas, and is best replaced by a neutral pH PVA (Polyvinyl Acetate) solution or acrylic matte medium thinned by half with water. The sizing must be applied first, to seal the absorbency of the canvas, and allowed to dry overnight, before the ground (primer) is applied. White lead is still considered a highly permanent ground for oil paintings. Its only drawback is its toxicity if ingested, either through handling food with lead on the hands, or through breathing the dust generated by sanding. The alkyd grounds use titanium dioxide as the pigment, which is not toxic. It is important, however, to be aware of the health risks associated with breathing the solvent vapors given off by oil-based grounds as they dry. It is best to carry out the priming of canvases and panels in an outbuilding, to avoid exposing ourselves and our housemates to the vapors.

It is important to understand that oil paints become increasingly less flexible, i.e., more brittle, with age, and can be expected to crack, regardless of the ground on which they are applied, if the support is not sufficiently rigid to prevent any flexing of the paint layer. Of course, this is precisely what we have with stretched canvas, including even the highest quality linen. It is very likely that grounds which might be prone to delamination of the superimposed oil paint when applied to stretched canvas will prove entirely satisfactory on rigid panels, or on canvases glued to panels. This seems to be the best way to minimize potential problems. An oil paint layer that is not subjected to flexing is less apt to develop cracks or fissures, and thereby is better suited to resist the various maladies which can befall a paint film whose surface integrity is no longer intact.

I mentioned that there were two questionable practices in widespread use today which may prove detrimental to the paintings thus produced, the first of which I have just addressed. The second is the use of a very popular painting medium containing a high percentage of mastic resin, long thought to be a lost secret of the Old Masters. Recent scientific discoveries reveal Rembrandt's medium to have been simply linseed oil, and sometimes walnut oil, sometimes identified as "heat-bodied" in certain passages, but containing no detectable resins.

The most important "secret" of the Old Masters was not some ancient alchemy, but rather a thorough knowledge of every aspect of the making of art, gained through sound training and many years of practice. I will go into the subject of resins in oil painting in greater depth in another column. I encourage readers to send in their questions. If I do not know the answer, I will consult with experts who do, and will report what they have said.

Virgil Elliott is the author of Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present, published in 2007 by Watson-Guptill Publications. He is one of ARC's <u>Living Masters</u>, and an active member of the ASTM Subcommittee on Artists' Paints and Materials. Images of some of his artworks can be seen in ARC's Gallery of Living Masters and on his own web site,