Liquifying Paint

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A painting made (and sold) in 2000 recently came in to my studio. It was a contemporary oil on canvas.

This year – 2014 – the paint had started to ‘liquify‘ – rivulets of paint running down the surface of the image.

It was an oil painting which, according to the artist, the paint had not been modified in any way – added to or overly thinned.

The paint layer is heavy impasto and the paints fairly unmixed so this bearing out the artists statement. The top white paint layer – probably Titanium White -was the layer undergoing liquefaction.

A quick recap:- oil paint takes about a year to ‘dry’ (which is why varnish should not be applied during this drying period as it will be imbibed into the surface). The drying process is complex and undergoes expansion and contraction of the paint layer during this period which is affected by thickness of the paint and application periods.

As the white paint layer was liquifying and running down the painting in some areas was picking up a little pigment from underlying layers, in others a yellow oil layer was visibly seeping out and running down the image.

As an experienced Conservator of Paintings and dealing with all aged paint layers ancient and modern (and knowing how paint is made commercially) I have never seen anything like this.

My first reaction was the artist must have added something to the paint – a non drying oil? and why should this begin to happen after 14 years?

A recent 2014 conference ‘Modern Conservation: What’s New?’ (not much actually)  revealed Danish Conservators were dealing with this recent phenomena in four paintings made between 1990-2005 by van Hemert and Tal-R

We are it seems at the beginning of a crisis and one which will affect modern paint materials in the age of health & safety and profit margins.
Lead Acetate is added to commercial artists paints as a drier. Paint manufacturers have since the 1980′s been removing such lead soaps from paints. Manufacturers hold their secrets close so finding out what they are replacing lead soaps with is something is yet to be learned.

Manufacturers have also been adding non-drying oils to the paint such as safflower and sunflower oil. It is much cheaper than that beautiful liquid gold Linseed oil, used in oil paints since oil painting began in the 15th century.
Non drying oils are just that, they do not dry. Probably these non drying oils have been heat modified and additives incorporated into formulations to encourage them to dry and enable them to formulate a paint layer.

Age testing has clearly not been part of the process and we are now we are the witnessing this new phenomena of paint layers breaking down and liquifying because of untested materials, health and safety measures and no doubt short term profit.

Along with Daler Rowney and Schminke artists paint manufacturers other companies have admitted changing formulations.

One Danish artist is taking a paint manufacturer to court over disintegration of his work. The process of litigation will no doubt set standards of proof but ultimately the world of modern art is going to see the ground liquify before its very eyes and there is no way of stopping it.

A get out clause is that artists add and subtract materials to their paints and usually do not record or remember work techniques. I would reckon paint analysis will easily identify any reckless materials.

Implications may also be in the pipeline for household paints, indeed any oil based paint. More to be posted…….

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About Lucia Scalisi

Conservator of Paintings working in London and on Conservation projects and training abroad. Formerly Senior Conservator of Paintings,Victoria & Albert Museum and BBC2's 20 part series 'Restoration Roadshow'. Accredited Conservator; FIIC; Dip Cons; B.Ed.