Contemporary Art Research Modern Paints

A series of research projects into the conservation issues and treatments relating to synthetic paints made over the last 70 years.

New paints used in artworks

Paints made over the last 70 years have been increasingly likely to contain synthetic binders and pigments. These synthetic paints – including house paints and other paints never intended for artistic use – have been widely used and are found in works by many modern artists including David Hockney, Gary Hume, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Bridget Riley, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. Although there is no evidence that the main types of modern paints are any less stable than oil paint, they are likely to require different kinds of conservation treatment, and these all need to be properly tested and researched.

The aims of the research

Tate Conservation has long recognised the need to address the conservation issues posed by these paints. Since 2002 Tate’s research into this area has been carried out in collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, bringing considerable scientific expertise and equipment to the project. More recently, this group has expanded to include the University of Torino’s Polymer Chemistry department. This collaboration research venture has three main aims:

Improving methods of analysis

Analysis is a fundamental requirement for the conservation of any type of artwork and there is a need to develop reliable methods of analysis to identify all the pigments, binders and additives that might be found in modern paints. Such analysis will assist in materials and techniques studies, authentication issues, and investigations into the effects of ageing and conservation treatments.

Understanding the physical properties of modern paints

All paints respond to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, becoming softer and sometimes tacky at higher temperatures and more brittle when they get cold. It is important to know when such changes in a paint’s physical properties might occur in order to ensure the best environmental conditions for works of art.

Assessing the effects of cleaning acrylic emulsion paints

Cleaning (usually meaning the removal of surface dirt) is routinely carried out by conservators on most works of art. It is important to assess whether there are any long-term implications for such treatments, to assist conservators in choosing the most appropriate cleaning methods. Acrylic emulsion paints were chosen for this study as they are the most commonly used synthetic paint by modern artists.

Completed projects at Tate

  • Evaluating the Effects of Cleaning Acrylic Paintings – The Tate AXA Art Modern Paints project (2006–9)
  • The Mechanical Properties of Paints used by Modern Artists (2005–8) – a three-year PhD study (registered at Imperial College), funded by the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation. Principal researcher: Eric Hagan
  • The Cleaning of Acrylic Paints (2003–6) – a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Principal researcher: Bronwyn Ormsby
  • Analysis of Organic Pigments (2003–4) – an eighteen-month project funded by the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation. Principal researcher: Julia Jonsson

Project Information

Project types
Conservation project
Research project
Support department
Tate Conservation
Project team
Bronwyn Ormsby, Senior Conservation Scientist
Eric Hagan Conservation Scientist
Patricia Smithen, Lead Conservator, Paintings Conservation
Tom Learner, Head of Contemporary Art Research, Getty Conservation Institute