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  • Michael Skalka

Painting Supports - Part 3

Summary: Looking over the Horizon - As both an artist and a chairman of an ASTM subcommittee focused on quality standards for the art materials industry, I take note of the changes in both the art materials world and the commercial paint industry. Artists need more information when embarking on making solid painting supports that employ a combination of commercial products and traditional art materials.

Artist fabricating their own solid painting supports, opened the door to using a combination of commercial products and art materials when polyurethane was proposed as a moisture barrier for panels. Further, this was accentuated when artists started using commercial bonding primers as a method for adhering acrylic or oil primers used to prepare aluminum composite panels for paint application.

Polyurethane or specialty bonding primers are not in the formulary of standard art materials. But both are some of several high-performance commercial materials that have potential applicability for artists. Stepping back further, it is important to note that hardboard and plywood are not made exclusively as painting supports. It is part of a much larger enterprise that covers many facets of the building trade industry under the heading of manufactured wood.

I see a need to look further into the progress the commercial coatings industry has made and test products that are applicable to art panel manufacturing. For example, polyurethanes come in a variety of formulations. It is not a homogenous, generic product. Hardboards and plywood are of different species, and panels employ a variety of manufacturing processes containing additives that are not uniform across the industry of the hardboard fabrication process.

A careful examination of commercial materials artists can employ in works of art needs to be done to assure they are performing to create long-lasting, stable painting surfaces. Formulations change and the resin, solvents, or adhesives may not have desirable properties. Modifications are being made to products to improve them from a commercial competitive perspective. While it may improve them in terms of application, shelf stability, or delamination, the changes may have cheapened them so that they will not have long-term durability. This is evident when examining the materials for substrates that national chain hardware centers sell for construction use.

We need to examine priming systems. My emphasis is on the idea of it being a “system.” All the literature emphasizes that surface preparations of solid supports used in the building trades require commercial priming products. Professional painters recommend several preparatory treatments that are standard protocols in the commercial painting world. Priming of manufactured wood products is consistently emphasized in trade literature instructions. New primers, sealers, and surface coatings have appeared that require careful evaluation.

Moisture adsorption has been researched for decades. Research conducted in the first half of the 20th century cites moisture-sealing materials that still demonstrate great promise. The key is to find a solution that is environmentally friendly, puts the artist’s safety at the forefront, and does a superior job with minimal complexity. Some of the old standards cited in wood research literature could still play an important role in creating high-performance solid painting support systems. These materials focus on moisture barriers that inhibit the deformation of engineered products if abrupt or long-term changes in humidity are present.

New substrates are appearing and gaining a foothold in the artists’ market. Hardboard is one of many engineered wood types that are available, and it appears to be a great performer. Other engineered wood products have been on the commercial market and are gaining popularity but have limited data via testing in the art world. We need to understand these products better so we can make educated decisions when making or purchasing ready-made painting substrates.

In summary, well-made hardboard and a few carefully chosen plywood products show great promise for long-term stability, especially if prepared correctly. (Note again that big-box national chain hardware stores are not the source of well-made hardboard. These hardboards are employed in the building trades as underlayers for things like flooring systems and must be marketed at low cost. They are cheaply made but this is what the building trades desire from big-box hardware-sourced hardboards.)

The next step will be to examine which supports, preparatory measures, and priming systems provide the best protection from moisture and not be dangerous or complicated for artists to use.

For those who wish to avoid making painting supports from scratch but still wish to paint on a solid support with their favorite canvas, the application of primed canvas to engineered wood needs examination to determine the best substrates available. Further, a comprehensive look into which adhesives to attach canvas to a panel needs to be researched. Some new adhesives might be available that not only provide good bonding of canvas to a panel but offer some long-term protection of the canvas.

There is lots of work to be done. I hope we can share in this dialogue and collectively find solutions to the changes taking place in the solid painting support world. Our painting legacy may depend upon how we act now as changes in commercial materials shape our decisions.

Stay tuned.

Syntax of Color

Editorial Note: I am happy to share that I wrote a technical essay on hardboard for Ampersand, a company that makes a wide range of solid supports for artists. For a more in-depth look at the world of hardboard and the processes related to producing engineered wood products, visit I am pleased that Ampersand takes a serious interest in making products that provide stable, long-term properties.

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