Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder

I think it is very beneficial to learn as much as possible about art materials, and how to construct a sound oil painting, and which commercial materials are to be preferred or avoided for this purpose. The last thing you or your buyer wants is a painting that crumbles to the floor when someone slams the front door too hard. But I also sometimes feel that artists of today are rather more concerned about “permanence” than they need to be. That’s putting it a bit mildly; at times it seems that many artists’ concern over lightfastness in particular has reached a fever pitch. And yet, the fact is that real permanence in an oil painting is impossible! No matter what colors you use, your oil painting will not last forever. If you’re painting on stretched canvas, your painting will probably not last more than a few centuries at most. If you’re adding many adjunct ingredients as mediums, then quite possibly considerably less than that. If future generations decide that your painting doesn’t merit conservation efforts, then almost certainly less than that. Many oil paintings created this year will likely crumble and be thrown out before the permanence of any color commercially sold today becomes a real issue. And yet, so many artists today are worried about lightfastness. I sometimes, with affectionate exasperation, refer to this obsession as Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder (LAD).

Artists of the past don’t seem to have suffered from this disorder. It was common for artists of the past to use colors that today are widely considered to be impermanent, fugitive, and even “unfit for artistic use.” This doesn’t mean that artists of the past didn’t know what they were doing, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they didn’t care about their art. Quite the opposite. I personally think that they were focused on the right things, and didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about trying to make an oil painting last forever.

At Ivy Ranch

At Ivy Ranch

Just as importantly, many artists of past eras simply knew how to use less permanent colors in the safest possible ways. Take the natural lake pigments: madder, carmine, weld, etc. In oil paintings the natural lake pigments were most commonly used as glazes, over underpaintings that had been completely modeled using more permanent colors. This way, if or when they faded, their doing so would not break the painting in any fundamental way. Take a look at the painting on the right, At Ivy Ranch, which I recently completed. The forms of the couch were glazed with two coats of rose madder genuine by Winsor & Newton. If the lake color ever fades, the drapery will still be there, because it was painted in very permanent earth colors, bone black and lead white. Then, if a conservator (or any reasonably competent professional artist, hired by some future owner of this painting) wishes to retouch or even completely reapply the glaze, it will be an easy matter to do so: no modeling required, just slap another glaze layer on there. (In the case of the conservator, this reapplied glaze would be done with a removable resin paint, rather than an oil paint.)

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

At Ivy Ranch - no madder

A benefit to working like this is that I can see exactly what the painting will look like if the glaze happens to fade entirely at any time in the future. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I used the lake as a regular mixing color. At right is a photo taken from quite early on in the painting process – just some basic value and temperature separations slapped in, the only parts that had been worked up at all were the skirt and the couch. The couch wound up going a bit farther than this before the glazes were applied, particularly in that the area behind the girl became a much darker shadow accent. But aside from that, this is somewhat like what the painting would look like if the madder glaze were to fade completely from the picture. Unlikely to ever happen, of course; rose madder, for all its notoriety lately among those afflicted with LAD, is actually a fairly durable pigment. (Surprise!) More likely is that the madder, over the course of decades and centuries, will fade to some extent; and so much later on you might instead see something like this:

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

At Ivy Ranch - simulated fading

Not my first preference – but not the end of the world either. And again, that madder glaze could be rather easily reapplied at any point in the future, and even more than once if need be.

Certainly the safest natural lake pigment to use is madder, and the safest way to apply it is in a full-strength glaze, as I’ve done in this painting. Many artists of the past were quite content to regularly use colors far less permanent than madder; but even for artists of today, with higher standards of lightfastness, there really should be no problem in my opinion with using madder as I’ve used it here. This is a very safe use of a pigment that is actually reasonably lightfast (ASTM II, suitable for artistic work).

Professional artists have a certain financial responsibility to use quality materials and sound painting practices; but this emphasis on “permanence,” I feel, has gone a bit far. And it almost always seems to revolve around lightfastness, and so seldom around other factors of durability in art materials. It has often amazed me that so many artists eschew the use of madder for “archival” reasons, but then turn around and mix large amounts of natural resins or balsams into their paint layers! … or buy and use the cheapest acrylic-primed canvases they can find, ones which will certainly not hold onto an oil paint layer for very long. I encourage my fellow artists to learn more about the structural aspects of longevity in a painting, and to lighten up – just a little – about lightfastness, and learn some of the ways in which less lightfast colors may be used in relative safety. Rose madder is certainly one of the most gorgeous colors ever to grace the medium of oil painting; and it is, unlike the quinacridones and pyrroles, a sustainable artist’s color. The madder lakes have been used by many, perhaps even most, of the greatest and most celebrated oil painters in history. So go ahead and use a rich glaze of madder on that drapery – why not! You’ll be in very good company.

Take the plunge. You won’t regret it.

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4 Responses to “Lightfastness Anxiety Disorder”

  1. JW Jung Says:

    Priceless post and couldn’t agree more about LAD. Your last piece really works well. The shadow tones and reflected light really give it a sense of mood. Look forward to seeing more. ~JW

  2. Jeremy Says:

    I have LAD at times. Other times I feel like “whats the point”. Who knows where your paintings will end up once we are not part of this world. It could be a family heirloom, or found at an antique store, gallery, or landfill. I try to make my work as sound as possible. I love madder myself. It was used by most painters throughout history. History is proof that these paintings though slightly duller over age, still exist, and have wonderful saturated natural color. Who knows what naphthol will look like in 200 years… or acrylic paints that matter (no pun). I can only imagine Bluebeard the Vonnegut novel where Rabo Karabekians paintings faded because he used a modern house paints. Think about all of the hip graffitti and lowbrow artists that use house paints. What a nightmare. Thing about the restoration nightmares of Anslem Kiefers piantings made of mud, hay, acrylic paint, and photo emulsion. Or even more odd Sigmar Polkes Radioactive Isotope paintings where the colors would change according to heat and atmosphere. I would put my faith in madder, weld, and indigo than some modern synthetic. Van Gogh used modern organics that had lightfastness issues. I know with thermodynamics chemists can better predict the outcome of lightfastness and stability of a pigment. My question for these “modern” chemists is what do we do when we run out of coal and oil. What will lightfastness mean without a raw material. Great post…nice painting!!! Cheers!

    • sunsikell Says:

      Jeremy,

      Good post with some interesting points. Many postmodernist artists have used quite questionable materials indeed – which is at least one thing they have had in common with some of the old masters. Goya actually made a painting on the wall of a building he believed would be torn down. Slightly different viewpoint, isn’t it?

      “My question for these “modern” chemists is what do we do when we run out of coal and oil.” … yes, absolutely. The obsession with lightfastness is a luxury of the petroleum age, like so much else. When one tells me that painters of the past only used madder, carmine and weld because there were no alternatives I say, Well yes! And what will you do when there are once again no alternatives?

      Fun discussion, this.

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