Artists have been using plastics as a substrate for their work since their development as a consumer material. Early plastics were heralded with such acclaim that they were awarded special honors during the London 1862 World’s Fair. These nitrocellulose plastics were used in constructions by artists Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner in their work of the early 20th century. The Bakelite® plastic (derived from phenol and formaldehyde) became sought after in the 1920’s for incorporating in the art deco fashions and high tech radios and gadgets of the 1920’s through the 1950’s. With advancing knowledge of the science and production methods in the 1930’s and especially spurred on by the energies committed to assist in the war effort during the 1940’s, a wide range of new plastics that were previously only in research stage were quickly reaching commercial production status.
The excitement of these new, lightweight, translucent, moldable materials soon became the stuff of nightmares as some of these early plastics degraded, some to gooey masses and some crumbling to dust. Given the history of mid to late 20th century plastics with a profusion of cheap toys and consumer products that seemed to fail once the package was opened, plastics began to lose their appeal. Finally, with growing concerns over non-renewable resources consumed in the production of these materials, and plastics filling our landfills, (not to mention cheap polyester suits) the story continues to be an uphill battle for these valuable materials.
Today, there is an even wider range of plastic alternatives on the market – some actually delivering on the original promise of these materials as a valuable resource for artists. It is so tempting for artists to see every surface as a potential substrate for painting. As we examine the use of plastics as a support for painting, Vaikunt Raghavan, Ph.D., Chemical Engineer and head of the New Product Development group at GOLDEN, explains the science to achieve adhesion onto these surfaces in his article Acrylics on Plastics.We will also attempt to sort out the different plastics that artists come in contact with and evaluate positive and negative aspects of each for painting.