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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

How Can I Be Sure?

Updated: Jun 18

How can I be sure, in a world that's constantly changing?

(Young Rascals “How Can I Be Sure” 1967)

We place a tremendous amount of trust that the art materials we use will perform as expected. We assume the pigment used will not fade. The oil used for the binder will not break down and change dramatically over time. The support we paint on will not fall apart. That is a lot of assumptions. Keywords: How Can I be sure?

Antique paint mixing machine
Paint mixing machine

Having spent years, first as an observer and then transitioning to a leadership role in the ASTM subcommittee that oversees standards for the art materials industry, (ASTM D01.57) I am confident that most well know art materials manufacturers have a strong desire to maintain high standards for the products they make.

I am concerned but a bit less worried about materials manufacturers that have stayed away from ASTM or those that operate outside of the mainstream. This was brought to light several months ago when I discovered and wrote about the world of “grey market” paints. See the Syntax of Color essay “Grey Market Paints – Not a Pretty Color," for more details.

Another concern is the evolution of the art materials industry in relation to ASTM D01.57 participation in subcommittee work. Our meetings 20 years ago were spirited affairs with debates and sometimes heated arguments about standards. The commonly held goal, despite the arguments, was producing quality art materials. Unfortunately, changes in the economy and corporate priorities have diminished participation in building and maintaining standards.

This is where you as artists come into play. Consumers have the ability to contact manufacturers and ask questions. Consumers can ask for assurance that products perform as expected, to hear explanations about materials selection and quality control. Most manufacturers have quality controls built into their manufacturing process. Manufacturers and artists never want to discover that one tube of paint differs slightly in hue than another of the same name. Artists don’t rejoice in seeing binder separation when they squeeze out a tube of color and neither do manufacturers. Consistency and trust is the name of the game.

Manufacturers have to battle a raw materials supply world that changes over time to meet the demands of industries other than art making. Pigments formulation are changed by raw materials manufacturers, modifiers are added to make the pigment better. Some of these changes can have an impact on the permanence and performance of an art material.

I came across a phrase that encapsulates the struggle manufacturers and artists face in selecting, producing and using art materials. That phrase is “value engineered for application.”

Art materials manufacturers must select pigments, binders, stabilizers, etc., that create quality products. In turn, artists need to select a variety of materials that are not necessarily created for making art. Fabrics, paper, supports, adhesives, colorants, and a host of others may not made exclusively for use by artists. They materials can appear to be logical choices for artists to employ. Sometimes they perform as needed and other times they may turn out to be products that contain hidden, inherent vice that eventually leads to the degradation of an artwork. Given that everything, no matter what it is, ages and changes over time, picking the best material for the task at hand becomes important. That is where “value engineered” selection is the focal point. Picking the right product for an artwork can be difficult but absolutely necessary to achieve a good outcome.

Artists appear to gravitate toward “crowd sourced” information with a lot of it either slightly wrong or some of it terribly wrong, to put it politely. Artists become convinced by formal education or by recommendations that some materials are the best to use but never bother to research how these materials perform over time. Conservation literature that answers a lot of longevity concerns is hard to come by or is stored behind a pay-wall with limited access by the general population. So the cycle of sharing misinformation continues based on traditions, hunches and hearsay.

This is where art material manufacturers can and have been filling in the gap. Some of the most reputable companies have newsletters, email broadcasts or consumer hotlines that address the concerns of artists. The folks who run these resources, many of whom I know personally, are a source of great information. They have heard and seen so much during their careers. Use them as resources. Use the Syntax of Color website to address questions. I read and reply to comments.

How can I be sure, does not have to be resolved by guessing or crowd sourcing.

The Syntax of Color

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