"Are Your Contemporary Paintings More Temporary Than You Think"

This is the title of the first book I read on conservation and permanence in art.  It was written in the 1960's by Louis Pomerantz, a conservationist in Chicago.  He was inspired to write it when he noticed that he was spending more time restoring contemporary paintings, than paintings done hundreds of years earlier.

Are you using house paint or primer from the hardware store instead of gesso; painting in oils on canvas that is not properly prepared; adding too much water to your acrylics, or solvent to your oil paints; adding extra oil to you oil paintings; painting over old paintings; using inexpensive paints, or mixing them with good quality paint,...

These types of things are happening all the time with artists.  The question artists need to be asking themselves is:  "Is this just practice or experimentation and I don't care what the painting will look like in a couple of decades, or do I want this expression to last?" 

Like most painters starting out, as a beginner, I never considered the notion of permanence.  When I was an art student in college I remember doing an oil painting on raw, unprimed cotton canvas.  I saw the painting years later and much of the oil from the paint had soaked thru the canvas and left the painting surface dry and brittle.  The cotton had turned brown from the acid in the paint and was also brittle and coming apart - the painting was not going to last very long, it was not 'permanent'.  I had no idea that would happen and was simply experimenting to see what effect I could achieve.



Most people are aware of my focus on the 'craft' of painting - I studied, teach, write and lecture on the materials and techniques of painting.  I spent several years learning the methods of the so called Old Masters, and for them, the idea of permanence - that their paintings should last for generations to come - was very important.  They took great care to insure that their paintings would last for hundreds of years.  They carefully chose their materials and used them in ways that were proven over the centuries to stand the test of time.  Often the artists signed contracts that specified which materials (pigments in particular) would be used to create a painting.  This awareness gradually started to fade after the 18th century as the artist's education shifted away from the Master-Apprentice system towards the more modern classroom type settings at the Academies.

Museums are full of paintings done by modern artists that are in very poor condition and are quickly becoming unrecognizable because of unstoppable deterioration due to the use of unstable materials.  Paintings that are considered to have great artistic and cultural significance are being lost forever.  We all know of artists, some very famous, using household paints and commercial products, found objects, and even perishable food products in their works.  Many artists do not expect their paintings to last and don’t care, they are not concerned about permanence, and if this is a conscious, deliberate choice, then it is a legitimate one - though many unwary art collectors and investors who own these pieces might not feel that way.

I remember reading about one of the famous American Abstract Expressionist painters who was invited by the conservation department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York to come and look at the state of his paintings.  He was shocked.  The conservationists wanted to know how far he thought they should go to keep the paintings from deteriorating beyond recognition.  It would eventually mean laying them flat and under glass.



When it comes to permanence, it is good to know how to create works of art that will last for future generations to enjoy, if that is indeed your goal.  Also, you don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money on materials to make a permanent work of art.  Learning this type of stuff on your own is easier now with the internet than it was when I spent all that time in conservation libraries.  My "Best of FAQ's" blog is a good place to start:


If you have any specific questions feel free to send me an email.