Materials Design and choices

This year as part of my MSc in Science Technology I'm doing a course on materials and manufacturing. Is this an odd topic for an artist? I think not.

As an artist, my materials are right at the centre of my practice. They are what I use to make the creative expressions. As an artist I am, in a way, a designer and manufacturer. As a self employed artist I actually take on several roles in the process.

When talking of the design (art!) and manufacturing process and materials there are key decisions:

  • choosing a suitable process
  • choosing materials with correct properties
  • materials' response to environment

As artist, I decide on my process. In my case that's painting, and the way I paint - with thin layers on top of each other to create transparency and colour blends. My process also involves a lot of clear medium. In my case using water, but depending on the materials that transparent medium could be acrylic paint medium, oil, alkyd, resin, etc. How I paint is something I talk about a lot - the glazing, layering and my almost watercolour style layers of acrylic to create the atmosphere in my paintings.

So knowing how I want to paint, next I choose the right materials. This is actually a question a lot of people ask when they see my work or visit open studios. Why acrylics? In the past I painted with oil paints, which my first instructor taught me. I switched to acrylics first for the challenge - just torturing myself to see if I could get them to work! But in reality I ended up choosing that medium, that material, for its properties. Acrylics have a flatness of colour that I prefer – while oils have a depth in them, this depth is created by the oil medium itself and a sort of "depth" that builds up with the paint. Acrylics, the way I layer them with water, don't build up a thickness on the surface of the canvas. All the depth and illusion of depth is from colour effects. My process led to my choice of paint.

The other property acrylics have is faster drying. Again, this matches my process. When I first tried acrylics it was for the sole reason of this property. Working in oils, I would have 10-12 paintings on the go at once. I was a fast worker in a sense, because I had the vision of several glaze layers in my head. My paintings involve a lot of layers, many planned in my head, so every layer of oil had to dry at least overnight. Even doing a simple layer on a dozen paintings didn't take a lot of time... but drying time was immense. The way I worked, my process, didn't suit the properties of the materials. So I tried acrylics. It took a long time... a looooong time... of trial and error to finally start getting layers and glazes to work visually like they did in oils. I wasn't happy with it for about 5 years. But in the end the acrylics had the right drying property to match my technique.

Lastly, and I know not all artists worry about this, the materials' response to the environment is about how the painting reacts over time. Every painting materials has its own advantages and faults, and acrylics is no different. It's more stable than oils across wider temperatures, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. The nature of acrylic is that it's flexible. But at very cold temperatures that flexibility stops and it can still crackle or break. At very high temperatures the paint surface can become tacky and stick to other things. Very bad if, for example, they're stored in a warm room face to face – the painting surfaces can stick together. (Good galleries and artists know to always put a layer of safe flat material between painting faces!) Most importantly, and the biggest way acrylic is more susceptible to the everyday environment, is that acrylic surfaces remains porous. In contrast, the surface of oil will seal up as the oil 'cures'. Acrylic paintings surface will flex and pores open and close with daily exposure. The surface can take in dust, permanently. This aspect of its response to the environment means it's very important to varnish acrylic paintings. I do this with a conservation grade matte varnish, which also gives me a correct property too! I don't like my paintings shiny. Matte varnish means the entire painting has a consistent soft look that complements the way I paint to capture gradual colour shifts and atmosphere.

My materials shone recently. I inspected a large commissioned painting that had been in a house fire. The painting had been exposed to smoke, extinguishing chemicals, and then cleaning chemicals. There was no damage to the paintwork and in fact the matte varnish layer was still intact. The varnish properly protected the painting and the paint itself tolerated the temperature changes. I'm quite proud of the fact that I have made a beautiful artwork that also was intentionally built to survive to be enjoyed for many years.

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