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Bill Whitaker, ABS, and Miles Mathis

Miles Mathis has posted an extended com­men­tary on some paint­ing prac­tices advo­cated by William Whitaker. He objects to some of Whitaker’s paint­ing meth­ods and mate­ri­als, and I thought I would com­ment what he’s written.

Before I do, I should point out that Mr. Mathis is, so far as I can tell, a pro­fes­sional artist who sup­ports him­self with his very good paint­ings. I, by con­trast, am no more than a wannabee. On that basis, he has and deserves far more cred­i­bil­ity than I. He is, how­ever, com­ment­ing on the prac­tices of another pro­fes­sional artist of at least equal stature (and fairly sim­i­lar artis­tic style). It is cer­tainly true that some pro­fes­sional artists through­out his­tory have used ill-advised mate­ri­als and paint­ing meth­ods. In any event, either Mr. Whitaker is right or Mr. Mathis is right on any of these issues (or they are both wrong) and I, lowly hob­by­ist that I am, will attempt to com­pare one to the other against my own lim­ited experience.

Mathis’ con­cerns are based on what he has gleaned from doing inter­net searches and by that means find­ing rec­om­men­da­tions that Whitaker has made on var­i­ous inter­net fora regard­ing appro­pri­ate paint­ing prac­tices. Before start­ing on his pri­mary crit­i­cism (regard­ing Whitaker’s rec­om­mended paint­ing ground) Mathis first objects to Whitaker’s rec­om­men­da­tion that Maroger’s medium is good to use and should be mixed with paint in a ratio of about 25% medium to 75% paint. In case you are not aware, this medium is from a recipe orig­i­nally con­ceived by an artist and paint­ing con­ser­va­tor named Jacques Maroger. It con­sists of thick mas­tic var­nish (made with tur­pen­tine) mixed with black oil (which is lin­seed oil cooked with litharge, a lead com­pound). There are many claims out there regard­ing Maroger’s medium and its effects. I have heard both that Maroger’s own paint­ings are in hor­ri­ble shape (turned black) and that they are so per­fect that they look like they were painted yes­ter­day. I have heard the same of his student’s paint­ings. I have not seen any of them. Other artists make claims about Maroger that are all over the map. Most con­ser­va­tors seem to con­demn it. At least one tech­ni­cal con­ser­va­tion paper looked at some of his student’s paint­ings and found that they had dete­ri­o­rated rapidly (although some of his stu­dents seemed to like the stuff so much that it seems as if they painted with Maroger medium into which a tiny bit of actual paint had been mixed).

My gen­eral take on the mat­ter is this. I agree that 25% of any medium is way too much. Gen­er­ally, I pre­fer to use just oil paint and per­haps just a touch of medium here and there. There are a num­ber of prod­ucts that are called “Maroger’s medium” and I am sure that they dif­fer in their prop­er­ties, so a blan­ket con­dem­na­tion is prob­a­bly not war­ranted. The one kind that I’ve tried seemed to slightly improve the han­dling char­ac­ter­is­tics of the paint, but not in any dra­matic way. I don’t use it any more, myself, in part because of all the hys­te­ria (which may be based on some truth) and in part because there are medi­ums I like bet­ter. Over­all, how­ever, I am neu­tral on the issue of Maroger’s when used very judiciously.

Mathis next con­demns Whitaker’s rec­om­mended prac­tice of wet sand­ing. This is a pro­ce­dure that I myself use and rec­om­mend. He objects that any water on dried oil paint will cause all sorts of prob­lems, such as buck­ling or delam­i­na­tion. Huh? Sit­ting a paint­ing in water is of course a bad idea. Spread­ing a lit­tle water on a dried sur­face, sand­ing for two min­utes, and then dry­ing it off is unlikely to cause any sort of harm. Of course one should make sure that the sur­face is com­pletely dry before paint­ing on it. Water has no mag­i­cal power to dam­age a paint­ing. Extended expo­sure causes prob­lems. Light wet sand­ing improves the tooth of the sur­face and improves the mechan­i­cal bond between lay­ers. That will likely decrease the chance of prob­lems, not increase it. And if you do sand, wet sand­ing instead of dry sand­ing greatly decreases the chance that you will breathe pig­ment dust. Mathis also objects to the idea that one should try for a smooth sur­face when paint­ing. He thinks that such a desire is “fussy to the extreme.” I think that depends on the kind of paint­ing you’re try­ing to make. Cer­tainly a van der Wey­den paint­ing would loose much of its power with­out a smooth sur­face. I don’t usu­ally worry about a bit of tex­ture in my paint­ings, but I don’t think that painters who want a smooth sur­face should be con­demned for that.

Next Mathis gets to the heart of his objec­tion to Whitaker’s paint­ing rec­om­men­da­tions: he opposes the use of ABS (acry­loni­trile buta­di­ene styrene) as a paint­ing sur­face. Firstly, he notes that ABS dust is very poi­so­nous and that Whitaker sug­gests sand­ing it, which, Mathis says, is extremely dan­ger­ous. I’m not a mate­ri­als sci­en­tist or tox­i­col­o­gist. No one should take my advice (or Whitaker’s or Mathis’) with regard to their health. The lim­ited research I’ve done indi­cates that sand­ing ABS is some­thing that should be done with a dust mask and that the dust should be thor­oughly cleaned up after­wards. So far as I can tell, we’re not talk­ing Cher­nobyl here. How­ever, if you do choose to work with ABS, please do your own research and fol­low appro­pri­ate safety pre­cau­tions. Err on the side of caution.

Through­out this sec­tion of his essay, Mathis really starts to hyper­ven­ti­late. He quickly moves beyond art mate­ri­als and ABS to a broad con­dem­na­tion of all plas­tics in West­ern soci­ety. They are poi­so­nous and evil.

Mathis wants us to be wary of what art mate­ri­als man­u­fac­tur­ers try to sell us and be aware of their profit motive. That’s per­fectly valid; there is a long his­tory of artists being taken in by shys­ters. He cites a web link from Green­peace that warns of all the dan­gers that plas­tics present. Mathis appears to have lots of skep­ti­cism of the motives of cap­i­tal­ists but none at all for those of anti-capitalists. The peo­ple who run Green­peace have their own agenda and their own incen­tives. The more they can get peo­ple upset about threats posed by var­i­ous mate­ri­als, the more dona­tions they get and the more polit­i­cal clout they have. All sides have motives that can be ques­tioned. If you treat one ver­sion of any story like this as unim­peach­able, you may find your­self rant­ing in exactly the way Mathis does here. ABS may be as dan­ger­ous as he says. But I tend to be care­ful about one-sided sto­ries such as the kind that either transna­tional cor­po­ra­tions or rad­i­cal inter­na­tional envi­ron­men­tal­ist orga­ni­za­tions try to sell to us.

In any event, I don’t think that the choice by an artist to use or not use ABS has much to do with the moral­ity of mod­ern West­ern civ­i­liza­tion. Which, I might point out, gen­er­ates vast amounts of sur­plus wealth that allows hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple to work as artists instead of doing back­break­ing man­ual farm labor to feed them­selves. I find that to be a good thing.

If Bill Whitaker is rec­om­mend­ing that peo­ple sand ABS with­out first tak­ing appro­pri­ate pre­cau­tions, then he’s giv­ing bad advice. Mathis also objects, how­ever, to paint­ing on ABS after it has been pre­pared as a paint­ing sur­face. I’ve done exactly one paint­ing on ABS. I was sent the panel as a free sam­ple by the folks at www​.realgesso​.com (who, I sus­pect, use appro­pri­ate pre­cau­tions in their man­u­fac­tur­ing process). The panel was already pre­pared and I did no sand­ing. I found it to be a very pleas­ant sur­face to paint upon. It took the paint well with­out being sticky or “chat­tery.” Over­all, how­ever, I didn’t find it to be supe­rior to either tra­di­tional gesso or lead primer. The pan­els are expen­sive, so I pre­fer to make mine myself with mate­ri­als I under­stand a bit bet­ter than ABS. Mathis rec­om­mends lead white, and so do I.

He also objects to ABS on the grounds that there is no rea­son to sup­pose that paint will reli­ably adhere to it. When I used it, the paint seemed to stick just fine. That paint­ing is less than a year old, so there is no telling what the long-term prospects are for per­ma­nence. My over­all phi­los­o­phy with paint­ing mate­ri­als is that I want to work with stuff that other peo­ple first exper­i­mented with at least a gen­er­a­tion ago, so that any prob­lems will have come to light. I appre­ci­ate the brave sac­ri­fice of those who use ABS pan­els, alkyd medi­ums, and other mate­ri­als of ques­tion­able longevity for paint­ing appli­ca­tions. 100 years from now, artists will have an excel­lent idea of whether they were a good idea. For now, we don’t actu­ally know.

For that rea­son, I’ll gen­er­ally skip ABS. While I don’t have the philo­soph­i­cal objec­tions that Mathis does, I don’t see that ABS solves any prob­lem that I actu­ally have.

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9 Responses

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  1. jeff says

    Dave, I think Miles Mathis is a bit of a zealot.
    I have used Maroger for years and I have had good expe­ri­ences with it as well as bad.

    The bad ones are from me not using it prop­erly so the paint­ings cracked. I have oth­ers that I painted in the late 80’s which look fine.
    Mas­tic does have a ten­dency to move when the tem­per­a­ture rises above 90.
    This is a prob­lem, some of my paint­ings get tacky in very hot weather.
    These are on wood pan­els and noth­ing has happened.

    I like the stuff myself and use Old Mas­ters, which seem to make the best.

    I am also mov­ing to medi­ums such as Spike, Canada Bal­sam, and Stand Oil.

    I never put that much medium in a my paint, 25% is way to much. I would use maybe 10% or less. Or apply it first to the panel or can­vas and paint into it. Adding more as you need to what­ever color your using.

    The ABS thing I don’t know any­thing about as I have never used it. To expen­sive and I just don’t like the idea of paint­ing on plastic.

    I think it’s funny as Whitaker to my eyes is a much bet­ter painter than Mathis, at least to me. Mathis’s prob­lem for me is that his work is very corny bor­der­ing on bad kitsch.

    William Whitaker on the other hand moves almost to the same extreme but knows when to pull back. Also he seems to have a bet­ter han­dle of value and chroma, which is a big thing to me.

  2. David says

    Jeff,

    I have no par­tic­u­lar prob­lem with well-made Maroger’s used prop­erly. But I def­i­nitely pre­fer to make my own with spike, Canada bal­sam, and either stand oil or black oil.

    Both Whitaker and Mathis are com­pe­tent painters; I’d prob­a­bly pre­fer Whitaker as well. Nei­ther knock my socks off. They both seem to make a liv­ing at it, so good for them.

  3. jeff says

    So did Bob Ross… and what’s his name, the painter of light.

  4. David says

    Thomas Kinkade (shudder).

    All right, you win that one. Though I’d much pre­fer to own a Mathis or a Whitaker to either of those hacks.

  5. Peter says

    It might have helped Mathis to actu­ally talk to Whitaker. I’ve known Whitaker for years and have stud­ied under him a bit as well. To assume that all Maroger’s are alike, that he mixes to a cer­tain pro­por­tion, or that he’s dry sand­ing to kick up dust with these ABS boards only speaks to Miles’ igno­rance of Whitaker’s actual methods.

    He does pre-mix his fresh paints with maroger each day till they reach a cer­tain con­sis­tency and he wet sands the ABS boards before use. The wet sanded ABS board has a smooth gesso-like sur­face due to it’s micro­scop­i­cally porous nature. Unsanded it has a hor­ri­ble glossy glean that’s impos­si­ble to paint on. What’s nice about it as a well, is that if you’ve got a hor­ri­ble paint­ing, you can sand it back down to the orig­i­nal sur­face with­out los­ing the board (yeah, they’re kind of expen­sive). I don’t use it, since I pre­fer a linen tex­ture surface.

    That’s my expe­ri­ence with Whitaker.

    • Paul says

      You can by ABS unsanded from the indus­trial com­pany lay­ered plas­tic, it is prac­ti­cally free from them. I love it for prac­tic­ing on and for works I am will­ing to exper­i­ment with.

  6. David says

    Peter,

    Thanks for your com­ment. To the best of my knowl­edge, Mr. Whitaker is a fine painter and a gen­er­ous teacher. I took Mathis’s state­ments about Whitaker at face value, mainly as a means of com­ment­ing on Mathis’ opin­ions. I agree that some sort of exchange between them would prob­a­bly have been much more productive.

  7. William Whitaker says

    Hello folks. I was surf­ing around tonight and found this inter­est­ing post. First, there’s a lot of stuff float­ing about the Net attrib­uted to me that ain’t nec­es­sar­ily true.

    I do not swim about in Maroger. I use it when I need to, but I have no idea where this 25% maroger mix came from, cer­tainly not from me. I’ve been in com­mu­ni­ca­tion with Miles about his arti­cle and I think even­tu­ally the truth with come forth. Mean­while kid­dies, before you write about some­one, it is a good idea to check sources.

    ABS is an excel­lent panel mate­r­ial — if you like smooth gesso-like archival paint­ing sup­ports. I’m sure there are other space age mate­ri­als that are just as good or even bet­ter. Also, it can’t be too dan­ger­ous, since the trays in your refrig­er­a­tor are made from it (as are count­less other house­hold prod­ucts.) I paint a lot of small works on it. I use linen when I work large.

    After five decades of paint­ing with Flake White, I’m entirely lead free…..well, as of LAST WEEK! Let us keep tidy, use our brains, don’t spread Maroger Medium on our toast, and above all, fol­low our art feelings.

  8. David says

    William,

    Thanks for the com­ment. I’m sure you use a care­ful approach to paint­ing. I hope it was clear from my post that I was talk­ing about Mathis’ descrip­tion of your meth­ods, not any­thing directly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of how you advise peo­ple to paint.



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