A pioneering three-year research project, the Tate AXA Art Modern Paints Project (TAAMPP), has now been completed, providing vital information for conservators and artists about the properties of acrylic-based paints. This project has enabled the expansion of the first major in-depth study of these paints anywhere in the world and the results will help to preserve modern masterpieces and provide the springboard for further much-needed research into this now widely-used medium.
Since the early 1960s, acrylic emulsion paints and primers have been extensively used by artists, accounting for approximately 50% of paint sales over the last 30 years. They are also the most common priming medium for modern canvases. The need to explore conservation issues surrounding these paints has recently become more pressing as early acrylic works are now approaching 50 years old. Despite the frequent occurrence of acrylic paint in collections, conservators have previously had access to little information on how acrylic emulsion paints might alter with age, or how they are affected by conservation treatments such as surface cleaning.
A key finding of the project has been in the examination of surfactant, a detergent-like material which stabilises the paints when wet but which can move to the surface to produce a grey-ish tone when dry, attracting dirt and dust. Water-based cleaning treatments can rapidly remove this material and do not appear to have a detrimental effect on the long-term performance of these paints. The development of a successful strategy to assess and monitor the migration of surfactant to the surface of the paints and improve its removal and cleaning on artworks will have a lasting impact in the care of many modern paintings.
The TAAMPP involved investigation into five key inter-related aspects of acrylic emulsion paints:
- an evaluation of surface cleaning techniques commonly used by conservators to remove deposited soiling from acrylic-based paint surfaces
- an exploration of the general properties of these paints
- an exploration of preventive conservation measures to prolong the life of acrylic-based artworks (summarised in ‘Caring for Acrylics: Modern and Contemporary Paintings’)
- an exploration of the effects of soiling accumulation on these paint surfaces and whether applying a varnish may be appropriate for these often unprotected and vulnerable paint surfaces
- the conservation treatment of five key acrylic paintings in Tate’s collection: Bernard Cohen’s Painting with Three Spots, One Blue and Two Yellow 1970, John Hoyland’s 25.4.69 1969, Alexander Liberman’s Andromeda 1962, Jeremy Moon’s Untitled 2/72 1972 and Andy Warhol’s Brooke Hayward 1973.
The TAAMPP also produced information on best practice for collectors of acrylic emulsion-based works of art as outlined in the Tate - AXA Art publication Caring for Acrylics: Modern and Contemporary Paintings. Acrylic emulsion works have delicate surfaces and, as these paints are prone to softening in warm and humid environments, it is vital that storage, packing and transportation is carefully planned so that no materials are allowed to touch the paint surface. The publication provides the following advice:
- Consult a conservator if you are unsure about any aspect of the care of your acrylic paintings – including condition, storage, display, environment, transport, dusting/cleaning.
- Remember that acrylic paints are softer than other paints and therefore more vulnerable to surface damage, heat from lighting, materials touching the surface and dirt accumulation.
- Try to keep the environment (storage, display, transportation) as stable as possible, ideally within the extremes of 15–25°C (59–77°F) and 40– 60% RH (relative humidity). Also be aware that rapid changes in temperature and RH can be as damaging as extreme values.
- Make sure you are adequately insured with a specialist insurer who will be able to help in the unfortunate event of an accident or damage.
- Use wet cloths/impregnated cloths for dusting the painting – as the surfaces of acrylic paintings are delicate and can be irreversibly damaged by well-intentioned individuals.
- Apply any domestic or proprietary cleaning/coating materials to the surface of acrylic emulsion paintings as this may result in permanent damage.
- Handle unframed acrylic paintings with bare hands – use cotton/vinyl or even smooth leather gloves and keep any contact with the paint surface to a minimum
Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate said: ‘Tate has led much of the research into this area over the past decade, and since 2006, our partnership with AXA Art has enabled this crucial research to progress.’
Dr Ulrich Guntram, Global CEO of AXA Art Insurance, said:
With 50% of AXA Art’s private and corporate clients across the world collecting modern works, we saw this research to be of huge value to the global collecting community. We are delighted that the Tate team has brought this issue to the fore and provoked thought and discussion in this field, as an authority on the protection and restoration of acrylics. As the world’s only art-led insurer, AXA Art is committed to developing conservation solutions and protecting valued artworks for future generations.
Dr Bronwyn Ormsby, Senior Conservation Scientist at Tate concluded: ‘This research has both informed and inspired debate within the conservation and collections care professions, and project results have directly contributed to the establishment of best conservation and preservation practice.’
John Hoyland, whose painting 25.4.69 was conserved as part of the project, recently stated that ‘Acrylic is a new painting medium as oil once was – all that’s lacking is the smell of linseed oil in the studio. I feel very strongly that the understanding of acrylic paint and research into the preservation of acrylic works of art should be an ongoing and important activity.’
A further important outcome of the project is the initiation of related, complimentary research. Tate will continue research into an important aspect of the TAAMPP through collaborations with long-standing modern paints research partner, the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles and The Dow Chemical Company, Midland in the USA, where new technologies and materials for surface cleaning modern paint surfaces will be further explored.
Committed to preserving the world’s artistic heritage, AXA Art initiated the AXA Art Research Grant, which offers support for projects that seek to develop and disseminate new restoration, and conservation techniques. The AXA Art Research Grant is awarded to globally renowned art institutes that pursue a goal: extending the life span of art objects for the preservation of cultural assets for coming generations.
Over the course of the project, Dr Ormsby and the TAAMPP team including AXA Art Research Fellow Dr Elina Kampasakali, Tate’s Head of Paintings Conservation Patricia Smithen and main project partner Dr Tom Learner from the Getty Conservation Institute, have delivered over 30 presentations and produced over 20 publications aimed at a wide range of audiences. For more information see the Tate AXA Art Modern Paint Project webpage: http://www.tate.org.uk/ research/tateresearch/majorprojects/conservation_modernpaints.htm and the AXA Art UK website: http://www.axa-art.co.uk.