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Just as good

Peri­od­i­cally, I see a post on an inter­net art forum along the lines of “Why buy expen­sive medi­ums when left­over bacon grease works just as well? I’ve been using it since 1953 and I’ve had no prob­lems so far!” Peo­ple (espe­cially we Amer­i­cans) seem to have a strong desire to use the mate­ri­als we are famil­iar with, have left over from other activ­i­ties, or can get for a dol­lar less per gal­lon than an “equiv­a­lent” mate­r­ial at the art store. So you see artists using white house paint to prime their can­vases, cheap boiled oil from the hard­ware store as a paint­ing medium, cheap generic spray var­nish, and other sub­sti­tute materials.

I think that’s a false econ­omy. I believe that, in order for paint­ings to be thought of as valu­able, they should be made from fine mate­ri­als using excel­lent crafts­man­ship. Imag­ine if a maker of hand­made vio­lins thought that balsa wood was just as good as a good hard­wood, or that generic spray var­nish pro­duces just as good a fin­ish and tone as a prop­erly pre­pared resin var­nish. That would not be an “inno­v­a­tive” way to save money on violin-making sup­plies. Work­ing like that could pos­si­bly pro­duce a vio­lin that looks OK, and maybe it could even sound OK, but it would not be an object of craftsmanship.

I’m not an elit­ist. I have lim­ited money to spend on art mate­ri­als, too. I buy inex­pen­sive Venice tur­pen­tine from a tack shop instead of the costly stuff from the art store, because it seems to be the same stuff and is a lot cheaper. I make my own tra­di­tional gesso pan­els because I can’t afford to have the guys at Real Gesso make them for me (theirs are bet­ter than mine).

I under­stand the desire to come up with per­sonal solu­tions that feel more clever than the fancy stuff in the art store. But hard­ware store boiled lin­seed oil is junk. It’s made for tasks like pro­tect­ing the wooden han­dle of a gar­den­ing tool from the ele­ments, not for mak­ing per­ma­nent art­work. Adding a lit­tle bit of cheap oil (or left­over bacon grease) to your paint won’t make it explode. Paint­ing on latex house paint “gesso” may not cause notice­able prob­lems. The paint­ing may last long enough, under decent con­di­tions. And it is cer­tainly the case that most of us will never pro­duce a mas­ter­piece that will deserve to hang in a museum 200 years from now.

But I can’t make paint­ings that way. Using house paint, cheap boiled oil, or any other junk mate­r­ial makes me feel like a hack, not a crafts­man. Decent mate­ri­als are not that expen­sive. And while junk mate­ri­als may work out OK, they may well not, and they may cause a good paint­ing to fail pre­ma­turely. Plenty of 19th cen­tury painters dis­cov­ered that when they for­got the tra­di­tions of crafts­man­ship and just used what­ever seemed to work they often got paint­ings that didn’t last. While I some­times hear anec­do­tal sto­ries about any num­ber of weird mate­ri­als being used with “no prob­lems so far,” my own bias is to use qual­ity mate­ri­als from com­pa­nies I trust, not jury-rigged stuff that is “just as good.”

Posted in art materials, painting.

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5 Responses

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  1. Eric Rhoads says

    We would all like to think out paint­ings will live though the ages but they won’t unless, like you say, we use good materials.

    Odd Ner­drum uses (used?) Hard­ware Store turps and lay­tex house paint as his ground. A story from one of his appren­tices, which I heard first hand (though I do not know it to be true). A col­lec­tor had a $650,000 paint­ing over his radi­a­tor in his NY apt. and the paint­ing SLID off the can­vas. Ner­durm was sued. This WILL hap­pen with lay­tex house paint.

    I know a promi­nent painter using house paint as a ground. His paint­ings sell for tens of thou­sands. When I told him the above story, his reac­tion was that he did not care. Sad.

  2. David says

    I didn’t know that about Ner­drum. I’ve read else­where that he uses hide glue and oil primer; maybe he’s changed his canvas-preparation method in response to the lawsuit.

  3. Heather says

    So I was on here…Looking for solu­tion to my prob­lem. The fact that use alot of black and white. Was try­ing to find a lessly way of buy­ing those 2 col­ors bulk instead of buy­ing the tiny lit­tle tubes sold at Michaels Craft stores. I do acrylic paint­ings, but also paint over when some­thing doesnt work. I was actaully on here look­ing too see if any­one has ever used like home depot paint for that pur­pose. That is when I found your blog. So what I am won­der­ing is if home­de­pot paint is cheap and hor­rid for suc­cess­ful, well exe­cuted art­work (that stays com­pleted), Then what is a good solu­tion? Because it is totally killing my pocket to be able to do the thing I love the most in this world. Have any sug­ges­tions? Because around me, where I live, the only place that sells in the kind of bulk I need is the hard­ware stores. So I was think­ing maybe you could help since you seem to know a lot about art work.

  4. Heather says

    Srry about the spelling errors. I am really tired, For­got to check it. Hope you can the idea out of what I was ask­ing. Just try­ing to find a good place to buy bulk paint for art work. Black and white mainly. For acylic paintings.

    • David says

      It all depends on what you want to do with your art. If you need to paint large num­bers of very large paint­ings, then maybe house paint is a good choice for you. I’m not well-versed in the prop­er­ties of hard­ware store paint, so I just don’t know how well it would per­form over the long term. It might work very well, or it might not last very well.

      You might also want to look into get­ting large tubes of stu­dent artist acrylic paint from var­i­ous inter­net sources. Most peo­ple find that to be a pretty eco­nom­i­cal option.

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