Artists are, for the most part, practical chemists with no education in the subject.
Pedernal, 1941, Georgia O’Keeffe, courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. All three paintings in this post have been identified as suffering from saponification.
For decades, conservationists, scholars and even Georgia O’Keeffeherself assumed that the tiny bumps along her paintings were grains of sand from the desert of New Mexico. Eventually, those bumps began to grow and flake off.
The bumps are metal soaps, formed by a chemical reaction between lead and zinc pigments and the fatty acids in the linseed oil binder. Medieval alchemists made boiled linseed oil by exploiting this same reaction, tossing lead oxide in to make the oil thicken.
O’Keeffe’s paintings aren’t the only ones suffering from these surface pimples. The problem is found in works by artists as diverse as Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh. As many as seven in ten museum masterpieces may be affected.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, Rembrandt courtesy the Mauritshuis
Anecdotal evidence shows that moving paintings, exposing them to daylight, and changes in humidity contribute to the problem. “There seems to be some correlation between the number of times the paintings have traveled to public exhibitions and the size and maturity of the surface disruption. The more times the paintings have traveled, the more likely it will be that the protrusions are larger and more numerous, saidDale Kronkright, head of conservation at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Detail of Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, 1884, showing saponation in the black dress.
To test this theory, a team from Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering has developed a handheld scanner to document continuing changes in painting.
“If we can easily measure, characterize and document these soap protrusions over and over again with little cost to the museum, then we can watch them as they develop,” saidOliver Cossairt, an associate professor of computer science at McCormick. “That could help conservators diagnose the health and prescribe treatment possibilities for damaged works of art.”
What does this have to do with us working artists? After all, we’re not using lead paint anymore, and if we’re smart, we don’t use zinc white, either. The problem is, most artists are all practicing chemistry with very little education in the subject, self included.
Falling Leaves, 1888, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum
Don’t think you’re getting away from the metals because you’ve moved to a modern palette. Metals are naturally-occurring elements of great usefulness, and that includes making pigments. An incomplete list of the metal pigments we currently use includes cobalt blue and violet, manganese blue and green, ultramarine blue, the cadmiums, Prussian blue, viridian, the iron oxide pigments (sienna, umber, and black), and titanium white. In other words, you can’t get away from them. Nor can you get away from the fatty acids in oil binders. Whatever the binder you’re using—walnut oil, beeswax or linseed oil—it’s an organic fatty acid.
This process of saponification is also what is going to make you and I dissolve into a pile of grave wax someday. Even the ancients knew that nothing lasts forever: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun,” (Eccl 2:11)
Meanwhile, we’ve managed to keep paintings intact for a few thousand yearsand we can continue to do just that. Just continue to paint fat over lean, avoid known fugitive or reactive pigments, and don’t follow untried, crackpot approaches, and your work should last a long time.
Death on the Ridge Road, 1935 by Grant Wood. Williams College Museum of Art
Occasionally a painting gets stuck in my head. Such is the case with Death on the Ridge Road, by Grant Wood, above. Viewers in 1935 understood this painting as something painfully probable in rural driving: innocent passengers careening happily toward their imminent deaths. One could see it as a metaphor for life, since we’re all in that state of happy ignorance. We are, however, in a new era, and current conventional wisdom is that it is a metaphor for Woods’ own privately tortured sexuality.
That’s a contemporary American viewpoint, however, and it’s unlikely to hold up. Death on the Ridge Road is currently in London, inAmerica after the Fall: Paintings in the 1930s, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. If I find any spare change, I’m going to see it before it closes. It’s not that I can’t or haven’t seen these paintings here in their native home. I’d like to see them interpreted through British eyes.
Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare, 1936, Alexandre Hogue, Philbrook Museum
The Telegraph called this show “a pungent mix of American horror stories,” but there’s more than a bit of Schadenfreude there. We Americans don’t necessarily think of urbanization, industrialization, or any of the other themes of the Great Depression as horror stories. They are the stories of our parents and grandparents, repeated down through the generations.
Nor were they the end of an idyllic past, as the title implies. We had been riven by Civil War two generations earlier; we had suffered through rocketing financial depressions before. Ours was a society that was constantly in flux.
It was, however, a “decade like no other,” as the Royal Academy describes it. The impulses in art were varied and many. Painting wandered down many different by-ways, from the regionalism of Wood to the Symbolism of Philip Evergood, the Precisionism of Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, the folk expressionism of William H. Johnson and the modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was a ferment that we can only begin to sort out in retrospect, and it happened in literature and music along with painting.
Gas, 1940, Edward Hopper, MoMa
“He’s putting the pump back, he’s staring into the dial, he’s falling apart: who knows? The garage stands empty, its light sinister as the dusk descending over the woods, presaging a thousand movies. The rural past meets the industrial future in this vision of a lone American lost out there in the spreading vastness,” wrote the Guardian about Edward Hopper’s Gas.
I, through my American eyes, see the homely Northeast in that painting. It’s the Maine of my childhood, moving from Mom-and-Pop gas bars to whatever it is today.
Meanwhile, in 1940, when Hopper painted it, Britain was enduring the Blitz. It seemed as if defeat at the hands of Luftwaffe was inevitable. A British public has to see the night sky in Gas as intensely personal. It’s more about them than us.
We’ve all had the experience of loving an abstracted landscape painting, only to finally visit the site on which it was painted and realize it was much more realistic than we’d thought. Visiting Ghost Ranch with Georgia O’Keeffe in mind is an excellent example. There are iconic views that make sense no matter who paints them, like Motif Number One in Rockport, MA. On the flip side, there are things that wouldn’t be believable even in the most realistic of styles.
This was the case with the coal seam I painted along the Red Deer River in Canada’s badlands. It’s small, it’s odd, and I like it, even though I’m still not sure I’m finished.
This is what my camera saw of the coal seam. It’s an excellent argument for plein air painting.
I didn’t finish the painting on-site because the vibrations from the high winds were making my easel unusable. I was shocked to look at my reference painting and see how bleached the place looks in a photo. Those seams of rock were a beautiful cross-play of color in real life.
“Goosefare Reflection,” by Carol L. Douglas
This summer I painted Goosefare Creek in Ocean Park, ME, which ended up being a similar abstraction. The Goosefare’s mouth changes course with every nor’easter that blows through. That means you can take any artistic liberty you want. I was interested in the sand and its reflection in the wide arc of the stream.
“Sunset off Stonington,” by Carol L. Douglas
Sunrises and sunsets sometimes seem artificial to me. The one above was painted from the deck of the American Eagle off Stonington, ME. I threw it down in disgust after touching up the colors last week, complaining that I had ruined it.
“What do you do with the ones you don’t like?” a friend asked.
“Swear and get back to work on them,” I answered.
In fact, after a few days not looking at it, I think the light and color are really quite accurate.
“Rain squall on Lake Huron,” by Carol L. Douglas
I had about fifteen minutes to limb out this storm on Lake Huron before the blowing rain emulsified my paint. Finishing it was just a matter of adding some final coverage. I wouldn’t do more with it, because even though it’s just a few brushstrokes, it tells the viewer everything he needs to know.
There’s something to be said for not jumping in too fast to ‘fix’ a plein air piece. You can easily destroy what’s quirky and wonderful about it because to your tired eyes it looks just wrong.
“Christmas Still Life,” 1916, by Gabriele Münter. If art prices were tied to competence, Münter would be among the top-selling 20th century artists, instead of being remembered as Kandinsky’s mistress.
There have always been women painters, but they never had the opportunity to enter either apprenticeships or academies—whichever were the great training systems of the time. The ones who rose above the lack of opportunity had advantages of birth (Sofonisba Anguissola and her sister Lucia) or fathers who were painters (Artemisia Gentileschi)
“Breakfast of the birds,” 1934, by Gabriele Münter.
ARTNews does an annual survey of inequality in the art markets and it’s very depressing. For the past two years, 92% of paintings that went through the big New York auction houses were by men; 8% were by women. If you think that’s terrible, that’s about the same ratio as is represented in MoMA.
There are idiots who still say that this is because men are better artists. What does that even mean? That women don’t paint like men? If that were true (and it isn’t) would it be a question of worth or of difference? It’s galling to see the Art Establishment, which sneers at traditional values, gleefully going on in their merry misogynistic way. But until women get wall space in galleries and museums, they’re not going to achieve the prices they deserve.
Cabin in the Snow at Kochel, 1909, by Gabriele Münter.
Last night, a reader sent me this short essay about power plays for women. I wish every woman artist would read it. The art market isn’t a meritocracy any more than the workplace is—probably less so, in fact, because art is so subjective.
Women are naïve about power and influence, usually ascribing their failures to their own personal shortcomings rather than the culture. We project deference instead of confidence. We petition instead of negotiating.
As was true in medicine, engineering and law, we can’t wait around for the culture to change. Men are either players or benefitting from the status quo. Some women are fellow-travelers, just as they were in those other professions. I’m open to suggestions about ways to equalize the art field, readers. We need to use every tool in the arsenal to claim our rightful place in the marketplace.
That was how Georgia O’Keeffe described her instant love for northern New Mexico, which she first visited in 1917 Although she never owned Ghost Ranch, she eventually purchased a small home there and later a home in nearby Abiquiú. (Learn more about Ghost Ranch here.)
We have added a guided tour of this area (which she loved, explored, painted, and lived in for over 50 years) to our “Paint the Magic and Mystery of Taos” workshop, from June 15-21, 2008. This is optional and requires a ticket at $25.
This trip is selling well, and we have a few openings left. I’m getting pretty jazzed about it myself.
I plan to pick up tour participants at Albuquerque Airport on Sunday, June 15 (if you arrive at a different time, there’s a shuttle available to Taos). On Sunday evening, we’ll relax over dinner at the Sagebrush Inn and get to know each other.
I am always excited to get to work right away and I bet you’re the same. In the morning, we’ll get right down to the business of painting. Then, while you eat your lunch and relax, Shelli or I will demo in a variety of media. We’re visiting Ghost Ranch on Friday. We’ll bring our supplies so we can get one work session in that day. On Saturday we’ll help you pack and ship your stuff and get you back to Albuquerque for the trip home. Your fee of $1200 includes workshop instruction, five days of painting in special selected plein air locations, lodging and two meals per day at the historic Sagebrush Inn. (http://www.sagebrushinn.com/)
Painters are welcome to work in oils, pastels, acrylics and watercolor. Materials list and daily schedule will be supplied upon registration. A branch of Artisans art store is nearby. (http://www.artisan-santafe.com/)
Travel arrangements and fees
Call Jeannie at Esplanade Travel to reserve your workshop space with a $550 deposit. She’s at (718) 597-1414 or email@example.com. She can also help with your flight arrangements if you wish.
Shelli Robiner-Ardizzone has led workshops for 8 years at the Women’s Studio Center, LIC, and at Great Neck Arts Center. She has been awarded a residency at the Vermont Studio Center and grants from National Academy School and Art Students League.
June is the perfect time for plein air painting in Taos! Join workshop instructors Shelli Robiner-Ardizzone and Carol L. Douglas and experience the beauty and majesty of the western landscape that captivated Georgia O’Keeffe, Nicolai Fechin and many others.
The fee of $1200 includes five days of painting, lodging at the historic Sagebrush Inn and two meals per day.
There will be both morning and afternoon painting sessions en plein air with a midday break for lunch. The days will also include individualized instruction along with instructor demos. Painters are welcome to work in oils, pastels, acrylics and watercolor. Materials list and daily schedule will be supplied upon registration A branch of Artisan-Santa Fe art store is nearby. For more information about instruction, contact Shelli Ardizzone.
TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS AND FEES
Call Jeannie at Esplanade Travel to coordinate flights and lodging reservation, at (718) 597-1414 or email her here.
Reserve your workshop space with a $550 deposit by March 1, 2008.