Gail F. Spiegel, May 25, 2006, at 2:30 p.m.,
West Building Lecture Hall.
National Gallery of Art
Gail Spiegel has a unique and refreshing approach to color mixing that provides outstanding lessons for artists working with both traditional and modern pigments. Working with strong, clean color is a key to fully developing the working properties of pigments. A better understanding of the color vocabulary allows an artist to explore new mixing capabilities. This lecture will be accompanied by a mixing demonstration.
The National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall between Third and Seventh Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW, is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
The Grammar of Color
Volume 2. No. 3
A Grand Time Was Had By All
by Michael Skalka
I am always humbled and impressed by the knowledge of the conservators and scientists who are associated with the arts. Professionals in this field are toiling away at building an ever-expanding body of knowledge about how art materials function and age.
I was privileged to attend the conference “Modern Paints Uncovered” sponsored by the Tate Modern, Getty Conservation Institute and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, held in London last week. About 200 people from dozens of countries came together to discuss the mechanical properties of paints and how conservators might approach cleaning them given what we currently know about how they function.
Even though the conference did not specify a particular medium, the focus was predominantly on acrylic paints. Many artists take it for granted that acrylic dispersion paints have been a staple in the vast array of selectable materials for making paintings. While it would be silly and inappropriate to use the emergence of acrylics as a turning point in art so that we would designate art as “BA,” Before Acrylics, and “AA,” After Acrylics, their impact is remarkable nonetheless. Obviously oil painting does not cease after the introduction of acrylics.
Acrylics do not emerge from under a rock, stare inquisitively at the morning sunlight, and trudge out to conquer the world. Like any new product, they are introduced cautiously, testing the market by gauging the reaction in both sales and ideological acceptance. The first proverbial “toe in the water” came with the introduction of acrylic primer. The material “revolution” started with a quarter page ad showing an awkward looking metal container bearing a label that said, “Gesso, A Complete Painting Ground, “ along with bullet points that were mirrored in the text of the advertisement. The ad stated that the gesso was a “synthetic resin emulsion that thins with water, produces paint films that are exceedingly tough and durable, permanently flexible, non-yellowing, insoluble in water, adheres to any non-oily surface, dries in a matter of minutes and may be overpainted rapidly.” The only thing that was missing was the “void where prohibited, taxes and license fees not included and your results may vary,” disclaimers that we hear on many radio advertisements.
That list of selling features for acrylics has not changed much since that advertisement appeared over 49 years ago. Vast improvements and modifications have been made to acrylic paints and grounds since 1957, but the performance points have remained nearly the same. Make no mistake; acrylic resins were not invented for the art materials market. The improvements and changes were done for the commercial paint industry. As lecturers pointed out in the “Modern Paints Uncovered” symposium, synthetic resins came about at the turn of the 20th century. As many synthetic spirit-based paints developed between and after World War II, acrylics similar to what we are familiar with were commercially introduced in 1953 as the binder in house paints. The literature indicates that acrylic artists’ paints were developed, launched and marketed in 1954. It is interesting to note that in my own research, advertisements for acrylics, gesso in particular, did not appear until early 1957. I find it odd that these products were absent from magazines catering to artists for approximately 3 years after being launched. This warrants further investigation.
Returning to the main point is that the working properties of acrylic paints and thus the foundation for marketing these products has remained virtually unaltered for the last 50 years. With skeptics of acrylics casting doubt on the medium, it is interesting to note that the physical attributes of acrylics have not wavered a great deal. They remain true to their original claims.
The one thing that has changed over time is that we have a performance history that is naturally based and a second line of research that is derived from artificial aging and testing. The conference proceeding gave no indication that acrylics were fraught with devastating problems and unanswerable questions. On the contrary, scientist can now characterize and understand this medium with far greater ability than in the past. Solutions to issues about cleaning paintings and establishing long-term care protocols seem to be just a few years away and in plenty of time to preserve the growing body of works painted in acrylics. This conference was just the first round. I am certain that “Modern Paints Uncovered” inspired scientist and conservators to continue working toward mutual understanding of this amazingly complex medium.
Scientists are still unraveling some of the issues related to acrylics. They are electrostatic and attract dust, soften when in a hot environment and become glass like when cooled to low temperatures. However, we have both the knowledge and tools to mitigate the issues that come with acrylics. Just as with oil paints, artists using acrylics must follow some guiding rules. Responsible manufactures provide a wealth of assistance in guiding acrylic artists to create sound and long-lasting paintings that overcome the negative aspects that are linked to all art materials artists can select. We live in a technical world and no matter what media we use, we need to master some principles related to the working properties of art materials.
While the conference did not focus on oil paint, it was stated that they are still part of the definition of “Modern Paints.” We live in a glorious time for making art. We have the choice of many aqueous and oil based media. Each has outstanding working properties and can be exploited to provide artists with the means to create a personal expression.
The trip was very invigorating and the free time visiting The National Gallery, the V&A, a major art manufacture’s and walking on nearly every major street in London gave me lots to ponder. With much to share in future Grammar episodes, we say goodbye to spring and welcome the summer season. Have a safe Memorial Day.
The Grammar of Color
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