History: Picasso and Non-Traditional Paint

Ask the Expert: "I read online about Picasso usinghouse paint with tube oil colors. Does that work?Also, do you know what brands he used andwhether you can still buy them?"

A: Historians and conservation scientists know fromstudio photos and first hand accounts that Picasso diduse some house paints and utility coatings along withtraditional artists' oils, possibly when materials werescarce or for the sheer sake of experimentation.What's not as well known is which paintings andwhich passages actually include house paint.

One reason it's difficult for conservation scientists todetermine what kind of paint is on a given work isbecause both artists' colors and industrial paints in thelate 19th and early 20th centuries had similarcompositions. Both were based on linseed oil, andincluded many of the same pigments and some of thesame natural resins.

While Pablo Picasso had a very traditional, formalearly training, as a modern artist he deviated from thestructured layering of classical methods in favor of animprovisational process, which he sometimesdescribed as "destructive". Picasso is known to have intermixed house paint with artist's colors, and mixedlinseed oil medium with both. Many of his earlierworks were painted on re-used canvases, oftenwithout priming over the original image, furthercomplicating the process of examining his art.

Picasso is believed to have used multiple brands ofutility-grade paint in some works (some photos showboat enamel on the artist's taboret) but the brandmost often cited is Ripolin, an oil-based enamel."Ripolin" at one time became a generic term for allenamel paints in France. Modern artists wereattracted to the new, inexpensive paint for its fastdrying rate compared to traditional oils, unusualtextural effects and brilliant colors.

The inclusion of non-traditional materials oftenpresents a challenge for conservation professionals inmaintaining art objects as they age, and the work ofPicasso is no exception. Enamel paint sometimestends to wrinkle, develop pitting or crack from age.

Painters today are generally quite knowledgeableabout issues relating to durability and stability in artobjects. While many still include non-traditionalmaterials in the process, contemporary artists tend toinvestigate their materials more rigorously than earlierartists and are often averse to using products thatmight have a destructive effect.

Most of the older utility-grade paints have beenphased out or replaced with more advanced productsthat don't look or handle the same as older materials.In fact, many of the acrylic and alkyd-based paintingmediums introduced in recent decades weredeveloped to produce some of the same effectsearlier artists achieved with architectural, marine andautomotive products, while delivering the reliablelong-term performance of bona fide art materials.

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