CONSERVING MODERN PAINTS
“We are not alone.” This is not the beginning of a science fiction story, but rather a description of the very real world of manufacturing art materials. From the beginning, colormen and other manufacturers of art materials have been highly aware of the tangled web of global commerce. Medieval merchants plying their trades in ports and caravans of goods wending their way over the Silk Road set the stage for what exists today: the complex dependency of art manufacturing on larger global events and enterprises. The loss of a chemical precursor that a company in India makes, the enactment of a regulation by a health commission in Australia, or simply a marketing decision by a European pigment supplier to stop offering a specific color in response to trends in the architectural and automotive paint markets—each can force an art materials company to completely reformulate or reassess its own line. In addition, the changing landscape of business with buyouts, purchases, and mergers only serves to further uncertainty in the supply chain of materials.
In fact, there is almost nothing about materials that is solely under the control of the paint manufacturer. Everything we use to create the products artists depend on is first produced by a diverse cast of other commercial concerns with their own agendas and challenges. And the consequences of this complexity go far beyond simply what can be offered on store shelves and online. It lies at the heart of the difficulties in conducting research on and creating confidence in the materials that artists use. Experiments and testing become mere snapshots in time of a field that is constantly in motion, making lessons learned or conclusions drawn hard to build upon since the base materials themselves are so frequently subject to change. These are the realities of the environment artist paint manufacturers operate in.
With so many potential changes in the manufacturing stream, it is important to qualify several suppliers for as many raw materials as possible (other than materials with proprietary or very special chemistries). For us, qualifying these auxiliary sources is incredibly time-consuming and resource intensive.
Resin manufacturers tend to be the most stable since changes can lead to disastrous results in product formulation. The recent purchase by Dow of the world’s largest acrylic resin producer, Rohm and Haas, has been, thankfully, fairly seamless. A wholesale change in a major resin may trigger a three-year process of evaluation and testing to safely convert to its use. What is incredibly exciting, however, in the universe of binder technology is seeing the constant improvements and new formulations that allow us to investigate other possibilities, especially within acrylic and waterborne binder technology.
The stream of pigment products tends to be the most subject to change. These changes are often based on market forces. A color that is not performing well in the market for many large manufacturers is not worth the equipment or labor to produce. In other cases, the material costs of production have exceeded the market value of the product. The most recent loss of a class of pigment was Manganese Blue. The last manufacturer of the pigment quit production over ten years ago, and since then most supplies of the product have been depleted. In 2016 alone, we have already seen six pigment offerings discontinued by our suppliers.
Suppliers of pigments are not the only culprits responsible for shifts in paint formulation. We paint manufacturers also make changes through our pigment choices. Much of this work comes from our research designed to create more durable, stable, and lightfast colors. For example, in our QoR Watercolor product line we recently replaced our Hansa Yellow Medium, PY 73, with a more permanent Benzimidazolone Yellow, PY 154. This was an instance of choosing slightly less chroma to achieve greater permanency. In this case, a pigment that tested as lightfast ten years ago failed to meet standards in recent repeat testing. This was an unexpected occurrence, but it demonstrated that even within the same pigment chemistry, a change in production, such as the creation of a different size particle or an alteration in surface treatment, may have occurred without the manufacturer informing us of the change.
Keeping up with regulatory changes in a global market is also a significant driver of change in formulas and the selection of raw materials. A recent example of a proposed sweeping change that was being considered by the European Chemicals Agency was a suggested ban of cadmium-containing pigments. The ban was averted only by a strong response from the arts community and an improved understanding of the real environmental dangers posed by these materials, which were much less than anticipated and ultimately deemed insignificant. But as our awareness of the environmental and health effects of these materials advances, it is clear that changes will be required as we strive to improve the safety of our customers and the health of our planet. This goal can conflict with performance issues for art materials—most notably in the potential prohibition of lead white oil paint. The current conservation research suggests that in oil paint, lead white remains the most flexible paint film of any white—or, for that matter, of any other colored pigment. As white is the most frequently used paint in the majority of paintings, the potential proscription of this pigment could have significant implications for the performance of oil paintings over time. During 2015 there was quite a debate in the arts community when it was suggested that the producers of these pigments were no longer supplying product. The rumor proved false, yet it raised a significant question about the future availability of these materials.
It is a competitive global marketplace, and manufacturers are able to source materials all around the globe, with price often being the determining factor. As more manufacturing is done in Asia (and especially China), there is quite a bit less transparency from suppliers providing information about their materials. For many paint manufacturers selecting raw materials on the basis of price, purchasing from those manufacturers can be quite attractive. Thankfully, in the field of fine artist paints there are still sources producing quality materials. We are grateful that the massive automobile industry remains a valuable driver of quality. That industry, like the fine artist community, requires a high degree of lightfastness in the paints it uses.
There is a reasonable desire among conservation professionals to understand all the components of works they are asked to evaluate or conserve. This remains a daunting task even during times of less change in the material components of artworks. As we venture forward into the conservation of contemporary works, we may have to reconsider how we approach this investigation.
The tools for chemical analysis are now quite powerful and within the reach of many institutions. This power may give us a sense that we can be even more precise in our investigation of the conservation of a work. In part to benefit the conservation community, our company has retained samples of all our products from almost every stage of operation since our inception. Even so, it is still difficult to use these samples as research resources to confirm what batch, from what year, or even the exact product an artist may have used. Although we are just beginning to understand current paint formulations and their impact on conserving work, it is important, given the rapid pace of change in all art materials from multiple sources, that we not overanalyze any specific use of a particular paint formulation to the point of losing value in our results. For example, as the investigation into cleaning acrylic paintings continues, it may not be necessary to evaluate every twist and turn in formulation but instead to concentrate on the general constituents. To understand the basic components of a paint system and how they contribute to creating a more or less permanent product may be the best we can achieve—or truly need to achieve.
Having participated in many formal and informal discussions regarding conservation, we are also aware of the issues surrounding the care and treatment of a range of artist materials we manufacture. Similar to the responsibility of preserving art in the care of conservation professionals, we at Golden Artist Colors study, research, and continue to improve our products, as it is also our responsibility to preserve for centuries to come the legacy of artists using our materials. This is not generally an easy undertaking, but it is made even more challenging by the pace of change in practice, materials, resources, environmental stewardship, and regulatory compliance throughout the world.
What we have done—and continue to do—is provide transparency to artists using our products, which entails sharing information on the factors that mandate changes in our materials. Often we have no choice in those changes, such as when favorite pigments are discontinued, as with our Quinacridone Gold, Naphthamide Maroon, and Cobalt Teal, or solids like those in our Garnet Gels. Sometimes it is information from the conservation community itself that prompts changes in our products. For example, when we began producing Williamsburg Handmade Oil Colors in 2010, initial research suggested that Zinc White was creating a brittle paint layer that might easily cleave from the surface. In almost a dozen colors (excluding Zinc White and Silver White, for obvious reasons), we reduced the zinc component to 15 percent while trying to maintain the luminosity of the color that the zinc helped create. In doing so, we also announced the changes to our customers, which was especially important to the longtime users of the paint. Not everyone was pleased with the changes, but being transparent about them has helped us continually improve our products.
The road forward is difficult. Regulatory policies, the needs of artists for stable offerings, the drive for innovation, the trends in commercial coatings and resin technology, and the concerns of conservation rarely proceed in the same direction or at the same pace. In each of these areas, we as manufacturers need to become trusted partners in crafting solutions we can all support. For conservation in particular, this will mean forging joint projects focused not simply on the past but also on becoming better predictors of the future. The creation of best practices for the understanding and conservation of what went before must be combined with the active, joint formation of a flexible and responsive set of best practices for artists engaged with the materials and needs of their own time. As stated at the outset, we are not alone. That should be clear. But a choice still remains. We can allow coexisting forces and interests to simply bump up against each other blindly as they pursue different ends, or we can acknowledge our shared interests and find areas in common where we can fashion a sense of joint advocacy and stewardship. Neither conservation professionals nor art materials manufacturers can undertake this task alone. But together we can help form a core to build from, and in so doing better serve the contemporary artist who looks to both of us for direction and clarification.
Mark Golden is the CEO and cofounder of Golden Artist Colors.