Recently, Barbara Hawley of Madison, Virginia wrote, “The blue colour in an acrylic painting I did in 2009 has disappeared! As I have several brands of acrylics in my paint box, I don’t know which one is the problem paint. Living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it’s important that the mountains are blue! What do you think?”
Thanks, Barbara. It’s always a good idea to check the lightfastness printed on each tube of pigment. Having said that, some less expensive acrylics don’t list lightfastness at all and may be so full of extenders that there’s very little blue of any sort in there.
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) gives ratings from I to V. I is excellent, II very good, III fair or non-permanent in artist’s paints, IV and V pigments are rated poor and very poor, and not to be used by artists.
The British system known as the “Blue Wool Standard” (BWS) gives a rating from one to eight. Ratings of one to three mean a color is fugitive and you can expect it to change within 20 years. Ratings of four or five means a colour’s lightfastness is fair, and shouldn’t change for between 20 and 100 years. A rating of six is very good and a rating of seven or eight is excellent.
Equivalents on the two scales:
ASTM I = Blue Woolscale 7 and 8. Excellent.
ASTM II = Blue Woolscale 6. Very Good.
ASTM III = Blue Woolscale 4 and 5. Fair.
ASTM IV = Blue Woolscale 2 and 3. Poor.
ASTM V = Blue Woolscale 1. Very poor. Fugitive.
Other than time, it doesn’t take much to conduct a lightfastness test. Put thin and thick dabs of your favourite pigments on a small piece of canvas, label them, photograph the canvas and tack it unprotected on a sunny roof for a couple of years. This is how we keep the colourmen honest.
PS: “Our colors offer excellent permanency and lightfastness. There are no fillers, extenders, opacifiers, toners, or dyes added.” (Golden acrylic information sheet. Note: Golden doesn’t pay me to write this. In fact, I pay retail for their stuff. RG)
Esoterica: Golden’s blues recommended for even outdoor mural applications include Cobalt Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, Phthalo Blue (both shades) and Primary Cyan. Ultramarine blue is also listed with them as lightfast. Cerulean Blues by some colourmen are in the second category. Prussian blue, hardly used nowadays because of the superiority of Phthalo blue, is listed by Liquitex as slightly fugitive. Amsterdam (a low priced acrylic by Talens) lists their King’s blue as lightfast for 100 years.
Four rules: (1) Buy the better brands and check the lightfastness on each tube. (2) If you do augment with cheaper brands, use them thickly. (3) Don’t use any acrylics too thinly, and always include more medium than water. (4) Always finish up with a “Final Varnish with Ultraviolet Light Stabilizers.”
Interpreting the numbers
by Tom Irvine, Gravenhurst, ON, Canada
My Golden acrylics have “Lightfastness 1/ conforms to ASTM D 5098” on them.
My M Graham & Company paints have Lightfastness 1 or 2 and say conforms to ASTM D 5098 and ASTMD 4236. How would I interpret this?
(RG note) Thanks, Tom. That means you’re good to go with both those brands. Several friends use the M. Graham oils and swear by them. I’ve used them a few times and found them to be very smooth and buttery with excellent tinting power. Enough to make a guy want to go back to oils full time. They’re beautiful.
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Importance of quality
by Luc Poitras, Montreal, QC, Canada
I’m always amazed that even good artists don’t take the time and effort to learn about the paints they use. Lightfastness should always be a priority. If you buy paint from a reputable manufacturer and the best that manufacturer has to offer then you’ll have no surprise. If you don’t, then not only the blue will disappear, but so will your integrity.
Factor in the cost of a frame, support, your time, plus profit, the cost of your paint is not much even if you buy the best. So, don’t be cheap! Your clients will appreciate it.
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Fugitive colour-changed piece first to sell
by Patricia Peters, Grande Prairie, AB, Canada
I had a particular painting that I had glazed with transparent orange (D. Smith) that gave me such beautiful warm vibrations of colour and delicious nuances that were very intriguing. I was preparing for a solo show and had packaged the piece carefully, and had it stored in a dark, cool, dry place until the set-up, about 4 months. What a surprise, when I unwrapped it — all the subtle colourations had shifted and changed dramatically (the only one out of 60 paintings). I deemed I could rescue the piece with not too much difficulty, but the gallery director was adamant not to change a thing. I decided to listen to her advice and just let it go. It was the first painting to sell and, of course, nobody else seemed “to notice.”
There seems to be some acute memory of colour in our memory, and I am surprised how accurate the memory is of these things. This acute recognition of colour was very useful when evaluating reproductions. I carefully watch several older paintings that I have kept, and find that the artists pigment and varnishes are standing up to the test of light, time and environmental issues… which gives me greater confidence in sending a finished work out into the world. I am full of appreciation that many people go to such ends to make superior products, and trust their name on it.
Removable final varnish for acrylics?
by Tim Alcock, Denver, Colorado, USA
I wanted to get your take on ‘final varnishes,’ particularly on an acrylic painting. The varnish provides a degree of protection from knocks, scrapes and UV to the surface of the painting, right? I’m told that an oil-based varnish can be stripped from an acrylic painting in the event repair is necessary while an acrylic medium / varnish bonds with the underlying paint and cannot be removed. Not claiming my work is of archival quality but there might be an occasion where I want to paint-out that ubiquitous blue fox, or repair a chip.
(RG note) Thanks, Tim. I’ve heard of final varnishing acrylics with various oil media before, but I’ve not tried it. Why not just use the excellent media supplied? Start with a coat of acrylic medium (I use gloss) cut with half water put on with a rag. Dry thoroughly, either forced or over several days. Then do the same with a Golden product “Final Varnish with UVLS” (Ultra Violet Light Stabilizers–removed easily with household ammonia). Put the canvas flat on the floor and flood it on (again, fifty-fifty with water) and spread it around and almost off again with a soft, lintless cloth. Two coats if you wish. I’ve never had a problem with “sinking in,” fading or fugitives.
How does the varnish work?
by Ellen Simon
Could you please explain to me how varnish can protect a painting from ultraviolet light? Why would that light not be able to get through the varnish and fade those fugitive colors?
(RG note) Any varnish, Damar, Spar or acrylic, improves the life expectancy of paint underneath it by stabilizing and retarding the tendency of some colours to slowly oxidize and change. Acrylic final varnishes do not flake or peel off — they merely disappear after many years — a fact that invites a further varnishing later down the line — say in twenty or thirty years. Other products such as “Bulldog Ultra” provides long-lasting ultraviolet protection to digital imaging ink such as in Giclee prints. This is a fast dry, elastic coating that will not yellow, oxidize, check, crack or peel. Bulldog Ultra has a very high resistance to ultraviolet light, claiming to block 99% UV light transmission. Some of these new products claim light fastness for 100 years. For further information see www.tricoat.com. The acrylic finishes that are removable with ammonia started as wipe-on floor vinyl acrylic co-polymer emulsion wax for linoleum and vinyl floors. They built up and yellowed and had to be removed. But some bright guy at Golden figured out how to make a varnish that could be dealt with in the same way. I use household ammonia to remove the final varnish if I feel the necessity to go back in and work on a painting. Information on Golden varnishes can be found at DickBlick.com.
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Student and artist qualities
by Elle Fagan, Hartford, CT, USA
Many years ago, I did a commissioned watercolor of a famous historic building for a very nice client and we all delighted at end transaction. But, later, the painting was exposed to too much heat and direct sunlight. The supplies were “top stuff,” the water boiled and filtered, but it faded terribly in two spots. I guarantee my work and restored it when I learned of the damage. In this case the areas that had faded were heavy dense and needed a few more layers anyway! So the repaired painting was better than the original and the happy ending was won for this painting, two times. I also went thru my paintbox to check on all the tubes of paint “Just in case” — and trashed any that seemed even slightly off, to avoid similar issues in the future. I visit the paint company websites for fastness data etc., if I cannot find what I want on the tube.
In watercolor paints, “student” and “artist” quality are named and the latter is the better quality with much less filler and thus, the higher purchase price. But pro watercolorists often deliberately use the pastier student colors to achieve a denser effect, rather than the sparkling ones that are won from the artist colors. Both are touted to hold up well, as long as the painting is not placed in extremes of heat/light/damp. But after that experience with my good client, “not for me” — I use colour-mixing and/or application of layers of the “artist quality only” paints, to achieve the less transparent, duller desired effect where it is called for, and have had no issues since. I always filter, but not always boil the water — and yet there have been no new issues of the sort.
One more note: At sale time I re-iterate to my client the importance of telling me if an issue arises. Some want to be “nice” and then no one is happy. My only fear is in my work. One does the painting for a good reason and my clients pay me well — a happy client is the goal and requirement in all good business. I always praise the good customer service I receive and try to be as good.
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Suggested topic for future RG Twice-Weekly Letter
by Nancy Oppenheimer, Seneca, SC, USA
I would love to read your celebration and invitation to share poems devoted to art by the sisterhood and brotherhood — by the community you have amassed! I’ve attached my own poem about the passion of art.
The Passion of Art by Nancy Oppenheimer
I am drawn with caresses
To a palm’s esoteric existence
Whose fingers motion
With magnetic insistence
To dispel all defenses
To cease resistance
To enter a respite
Far from this unanswerable dissidence.
I take leave of this world absurd
And await the amulet’s sweet word
And the word is a hand opening a door
Upon a land of what once shimmered before
Before I breathed a breath
Or knew a thought of death.
Here then rise mountains upright and true
Bathed by sunny lights of every hue
Where all living creatures are free from the harms
That hunters and warriors bear with their arms
Here then to bring birth to the passion of art
Is to fully understand with a loving heart.
My hand holds brush with color
And caresses the canvas like a lover
We are one.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes a question from Mary Catherine Jorgensen, “You do not mention oils & light fastness. I use most often the better brands so am not really worried but still… acrylics are NOT oils and thus my question.”
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. The same system works for both oils and watercolours. Lightfastness is printed right on the tubes in all the better brands. Oils are generally not so much of a problem as painters tend to use them thicker and with more impasto. The danger lies particularly in acrylics because the medium is easy to use in a diluted or watercolour manner and the result is that they don’t have the body as in oils.
And also Robert Cohen of Rockville, MD, USA, who wrote, “Correction: ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM).”
(RG note) Thanks, Robert, and all other sharp-eyed artists and others who corrected me on this.
And also Brian Care of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “All this technical stuff about colourfastness is just so tiresomely complicated. Wouldn’t it just be easier for Barbara to move?”
Enjoy the past comments below for The disappearing blue…