It is hard to believe that when Golden Artist Colors made its debut in 1980 no brand of acrylic had more than one gel medium, one polymer medium, one matte medium and a molding (or modeling) paste. It was from the needs of artists that GOLDEN Acrylics’ list of mediums expanded to over 46 products and countless custom mediums. This explosion of new mediums and color possibilities came as a response to meeting artist needs to discover an exciting unexplored future with what was still a relatively new artist medium. Acrylic emerged from a product that was considered of secondary importance within the arts community to one that is now considered at least the equivalent to any other art media. But as these new acrylics offered new possibilities, artists demanded even more of these materials, pushing them into further reaches of discovery and creating even greater expectations for their performance.
Although a good deal of information was assumed to be known about the acrylic materials by the 1980’s, much of the information was conjecture and anecdotal. Few treatises on the materials were available. Margaret Watherston’s “The Cleaning of Color Field Paintings”1 was one of the first published conservation treatment studies suggesting some signs that these acrylic paintings might not be so indestructible. Yet, Watherston’s work took more issues with underbound acrylic paints and unprotected canvas than any true indictment of the acrylic paints themselves. To truly understand how these materials will stand up over time has required a concerted effort of material scientists and manufacturers working together to provide the support for our observations and to sustain or refute common assumptions as to how these materials perform.
Prior to this past decade, very little research, yet much conjecture composed our body of knowledge as to how these new acrylics would fair. The earliest pioneer in this new artist binder was Dr. Robert L. Feller. As a restoration chemist at Carnegie-Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, he searched for an improved paintings varnish. With his groundbreaking work studying acrylics for conservation in the 1950’s through the 1980’s, we had at least the beginnings of a scientific basis for the use of acrylic as an artist medium. This work continued in fits and starts until Paul Whitmore continued that research of chemical changes in the acrylic at the Mellon Institute in 1993. Marion Mecklenburg at the Conservation Analytical Labs of the Smithsonian a year earlier took an entirely different approach to the study of these materials by analyzing the mechanical dynamics in the acrylic media.
The only other group studying the acrylic medium in context of developing new quality standards for all artist materials was the ASTM Subcommittee D-01.57 on Artists’ Paints and Related Materials. Within the development of these standards emerged an understanding of the contribution of pigments to the durability of the acrylic medium. One of the most important contributors to this work was Henry Levison, a pioneer chemist in the acrylic media for artists and inventor of Liquitex®. His initial research shared with some enthusiasm, the reduction of yellowing especially compared to traditional oil paints2. Levison was one of the early contributors to the work of the ASTM subcommittee. This work had begun in the late 1970’s and we joined this group in 1981. A good deal of our Subcommittee’s work has been the development of standards for lightfastness of pigments as well as accurately labeling paints for artists3.
We had attended our first joint meeting at the National Gallery hosted by the Smithsonian staff of the Conservation Analytical Lab in 19914. The relationships we began with the conservation community allowed us a much greater understanding of the sort of challenges these materials might face. We had published our first paper in collaboration with James Hamm of Buffalo State looking at the yellowing of acrylic films in relationship to the grounds on which they were applied5. Since this time we have published separately or jointly seven papers, delivered over a dozen symposia on the conservation of acrylic materials and supported many other research projects creating custom formulations for advancing the knowledge and the potential of these amazing materials. We were delighted to be guided and mentored in this effort by Ross Merrill, the Chief of Conservation at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. Ross supported our effort to sponsor the “Samuel Golden Fellowship for Research into Modern Painting Materials” awarded to Dr. Greg Smith. Ross was instrumental in bringing together various groups to begin to tackle these important issues. Included in this collaboration were the Smithsonian’s SCMRE, The Tate, The Getty, MolArt in the Netherlands, MOMA and eventually Queens University, Buffalo State, the University of Turino, and Winterthur. All of these institutions, for the first time, were working together to understand the most important new medium of the last and this century.
From these collaborations emerged a highly committed consortium led by Dr. Tom Learner, the leading researcher in Modern Materials. Culminating in the Symposium in London in 2006, at the Tate: “Modern Paints Uncovered.” The many dedicated scientists have continued this research, providing new tools for conservators and new insights for us in our attempts to create products that will provide artists even greater success with these new modern coatings.
1 Margaret Watherston, “The Cleaning of Color Field Paintings”, in E. Carmean (ed), The Great Decade of American Abstraction: Modernist Art 1960-1970, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston 1974, pp.119-29
2 Henry W. Levison, “Yellowing and Bleaching of Paint Films”, Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, (1985), Vol 24, No. 2, Article 2, pp.69-76
3 Although pigments play a substantive role in defining the change or lack of change in an artist paint, the subject of lightfastness of pigments and their subsequent changes based on exposure will not be part of this article, other than the role of pigment concentration on the level of porosity and flexibility of the acrylic film.
4 Symposium Workshop: “Modern Artists’ Materials and Their Conservation Implications”, Conservation Analytical Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution. Presentation: “Plastics, Son, Plastics”. June 26-28, 1991
5 James Hamm, Ben Gavett, Mark Golden, Jim Hayes, Charles Kelly, John Messinger, Margaret Contompasis and Bruce Suffield, “The Discoloration of Acrylic Dispersion Media”, in David Grattan (ed.) Saving the Twentieth Century: The Conservation of Modern Materials, Proceedings of a Conference Symposium ’91, Ottawa, Canada, Sept 15-20, 1991, CCI Ottawa, Canada, 1993
6 Mark Golden, “Modern Paints Uncovered Symposium at Tate Modern in London,” Just Paint Issue #15, 2006
James Hayes, Mark Golden and Gregory D. Smith, “From Formulation to Finished Product: Causes and Potential Cures for Conservation Concerns in Acrylic Emulsion Paints”, Proceedings: Modern Paints Uncovered, Getty Conservation Institute, Tate, National Gallery of Art, Tate Modern, London May 16-19, 2006
Frank N. Jones, Wenjing Mao, Paul D. Ziemer, Fei Xiao, Jim Hayes, Mark Golden “Artist Paints-an Overview and Preliminary Studies of Durability”, Progress in Organic Coatings, 52 (2005) 9-20
Elizabeth Jablonski, Tom Learner, Jim Hayes, Mark Golden, “Conservation Concerns for Acrylic Emulsion Paints”, Reviews in Conservation, The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 2003
Mark Golden, “Basic Paint Research and Development” in Extended Abstracts, the Fifth Annual Infrared and Raman Users Group Conference, The Getty Center, Los Angeles 2002
Jim Hayes, Mark Golden, Elizabeth Jablonski: “The Conservation of Acrylic Dispersion Paintings: An Overview., in Paintings Specialty Group Postprints, American Institute for Conservation (2001)
Jim Hayes, Mark Golden: “From Lab Bench to Canvas: 50 Years of Synthetic Polymers in Artists. Materials”, Polymer Preprints, Volume 35, Number 2, (August 1994) Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, Division of Polymer Chemistry, Inc.
J. Hamm, Ben Gavett, Jim Hayes, M. Golden, C. Kelly, J. Messinger, M. Contompasis and B. Suffield, “The Discoloration of Acrylic Dispersion Media”, in David Grattan (ed.), Saving the Twentieth Century: The Conservation of Modern Materials, Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa (1991)
Frank Jones, Jim Hayes, Mark Golden Informal Presentation “Artist Paints . An Overview and Preliminary Studies of Durability” at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (March 2003)
Symposium: “A Plan for Condition Assessment, Treatment and Maintenance of the Murals of the United States:” Presented “Exterior Mural Painting in Acrylic Medium” The Getty Center, Los Angeles (May 2003) “The Convergence of Art, Tools and Posterity” Joint Meeting of Midwest Region Conservation Guild and the Southeast Region Conservation Association (November 2002)
Symposium: “Santos: Substance & Soul” sponsored by The National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education. Presented “Acrylic Artist Paint Properties and Best Practices for Painting Wood” (August 2001)
Symposium Presentation: “The Colors of Invention, An Exploration of Color, Technology and Culture” at The National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Presenter in session “The Artist View: Color, Technology and Style in Postwar Art”, at Smithsonian.s Lemelson Center (1997)
Symposium Presentation: “Creators or Destroyers: Ethics, the Environment and Symposium Presentation: “Creators or Destroyers: Ethics, the Environment and Art Materials.” College Art Association Annual Conference, Presentation: “Art materials that last, art waste that doesn’t. Can we have both?” (September 1991)
Symposium Workshop: “Modern Artists. Materials and Their Conservation Implications” Conservation Analytical Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution. Presentation: “Plastics, Son, Plastics”. June 26-28, 1991