Volume 9, Number 3, Sept 1987, pp.5-8
[Most everyone in WAAC knows Zora and Edward. They have been long time members and supporters of WAAC. Zora, Leslie Kruth, and Tatyana Thompson organized and developed the WAAC Resource File. Zora is an active member of both the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) and the ISCC (Inter-Society Color Council) committees responsible for the recently revised and expanded standards for artist's paints and related chronic health hazard labeling. Zora is perhaps best known for her unique art store, Zora's. Located in West LA, Zora's was founded on January 1, 1960. For 26 years it was an indispensable source for art materials and information on all matters of materials and techniques. Known equally well by Los Angeles artists and conservators, Zora's was an institution. In December 1986, Zora's was sold to Standard Brands and is now The Art Store. I met Zora when I first came to Los Angeles in '82. We went up on the roof of Zora's, amongst the rows and rows of paint and pastel swatches in exposure test chambers, and discussed art materials and stability. This interview was conducted over dinner and libations on Zora and Edward's sailboat at the Marina. The interview, as anyone who knows Zora and Edward would guess, was informal and very pleasant. What follows are fragments of our conversation. --Ed.]
In some schools in the East, Europe, and in Mexico, students don't paint until they learn how to produce the materials necessary for their work. Perhaps the best way to address the problem is to find teachers who are so enthusiastic and excited that they enjoy teaching the subject. If teachers were truly interested in their subject, you can bet there would be artists out there having great fun and using materials with consummate craftsmanship at the same time.
I think there are more people interested in materials today than there have been for a good many years. Reed Kay, who is a great teacher at Boston State University has written one of the best books I have seen in the last 20 years on artist's materials. [Reed Kay, Boston University. The Painter's Guide to Studio Methods and Materials. Prentice Hall, 1983. 288pp, paperback. Previously published under the title The Painter's Companion.] Not many copies are sold because people are still reading Ralph Mayer's The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques, which is still used as the "Bible" even though it is still far from up-to-date.
A recent addition to the literature that is exceptionally current and useful is Mark Gottsegan's book. [Mark David Gottsegan, University of North Carolina, Greensboro. A Manual of Painting Materials and Techniques. Harper & Row, 1987. 441pp, hardcover.] He is a teacher at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and also an active member of the ASTM and ISCC committees. It is important that publishers feel that there is enough of a market for books like these to be produced. That is a great break-through.
There is also more interest in conservation today than there was 15 years ago, particularly for works of art on paper. We find collectors and artists are making more of an effort to use acid- free, archival, healthy materials. Since there is a renewed interest in materials, users need guidance so that the information can be understood and used properly. If material is presented in too technical a way, it looses its impact because it isn't understood.
That is an issue that is very important to me because reversible varnish is the best protection you can really offer the paint.
I would wish that if an artist is going to sell their work, they would have a feeling of responsibility to the buyer to insure that it is protected to the best of their ability and that the painting would last at least as long as the purchaser has it. The purpose of varnish is to provide a clear coating to protect the paint. The coating should be removable as it is gathering all of the dirt. I believe that the artist's obligation is to deliver what the buyer bought, in a condition that can be enjoyed over a reasonable length of time.
If an art work is sold as something that isn't dependent on permanence, that is conceptual, and that is specifically understood, then everyone has acted with honesty and integrity. But if it is being offered for sale as something that has a reasonable amount of durability and it does not, that is another matter.
When we are talking about artists who are concerned with the preservation of the integrity of the works they produce, we must ask where they get the information that they need. We know the artist is not learning about materials and technique in school now. We do not know whether that is because the students reject the idea of learning, or if the teacher rejects the idea of teaching these basic crafts. Surely there are teachers who know their materials and techniques very well. They know it intuitively and because they were taught. There are instructors who understand that teaching is a process that starts at the beginning, and there are some who say you don't need to start at the beginning. For me, the latter are poor teachers indeed.
You prepared it yourself, from the tears? Why don't you use something like Winton or Rembrandt, they are Ketone N, too. I am beginning to believe, at this stage, that being a purist doesn't have so much appeal any more. Many conservators don't think it is necessary to start from scratch.
I would use the Rembrandt varnish by Talens for a finish similar to yours. It is a Ketone N, polycyclohexanone, in mineral spirits with a small percentage of turpentine in it. The turpentine seems to eliminate all the problems I have with the Winton. Even though they are both fundamentally the same, I find the Winton too glossy and onerous to use, the Rembrandt is a joy, a real pleasure.
Incidentally, there are two varnishes that Talens makes, the Rembrandt and a Van Gogh. They tell me that they are very different from each other. I have samples but I have never had a chance to try the Van Gogh in comparison with others.
To evaluate varnishes, I make a panel of about 4x4 inch swatches of an acrylic paint, preferably a very bright color. The paint is allowed to dry until I am reasonably sure it is totally cured, approximately two weeks. Then I apply a series of sample varnishes.
Many times, decisions can be made about which varnish to use on a painting by looking at the samples and eliminating those varnishes we really don't want to use, because they would produce an inappropriate surface.
I use a series of samples of spray and brush applied varnishes at simple dilutions, percentages like 50% or 25% which are easy for the average user to make. It is critical to communicate the information to the user. A conservator can come up with various concoctions that the artist is not confident with. I am all for making work for the conservator, but it is not necessary to go out of your way to make it, the artists already are.
I think it is critical to start with preventive medicine, preventive conservation. It begins with educating the user, the artists. If you present them with examples of how the material is going to look, so that when they reach for something, they reach for the proper material, maybe we would end up with creations that are not quite the terrible problems we see now. There would still be problems, healthy people get sick, but many very serious problems that are practically insoluble could be prevented.
Getting the artist to reach for something that is stable in the first place, and using it in the way it was intended would solve a lot of problems.
There is no way for anyone to say that there is a way to construct a painting that is going to last X number of years. There is no perfect answer. My husband is perfect -- for me. And that is the only answer. You must solve your own problems, read and heed what is on the label, and understand your materials. All of us are prone to act very quickly and not read the labels. All of us have made terrible mistakes. All of us have learned by our mistakes, I hope. It is a very personal thing. There are some truths, some real truths and real rules. Most of us know those rules, and if we choose to ignore them, then we must take the responsibility for our actions.
Some conservators still use oils and egg tempera for inpainting. I don't believe that I am alone in using the "Patchki" method on occasion. Patchki, in Yiddish, means to play with something. The patchki method is taking whatever vehicle you want to use, in whatever solvent you choose and simply dip the brush from medium to dry pigment and patchki it around on the pallet. Even though I have been saying for years that this is a rather questionable method of inpainting because the pigment particles have not been totally coated with the vehicle, it seem the expedient solution for some problems. But how long will it last?
Maybe it will last long enough. How long can inpainting last, be an acceptable match? You know the materials, the restoration and the original, are going to change, and at different rates. What is the optimum time for inpainting to remain as perfect as when it was first put down?
Lets change it into people. What happens if you have your face lifted. As you age, if you elect to have cosmetic surgery, you must repeat it at almost specific periods, and at increasingly closer intervals. Perhaps it is the same thing with a work of art. That brings it pretty close to home.
If the inpainting is reversible, then it can be removed and reapplied, a cycle of restoration. But what about inpainting acrylics with acrylic. It may be the only way to get an acceptable match but what happens in 20 years?
Perhaps the worst case would be working on an older flat field painting in which you had to match a fluorescent color. It is difficult but not impossible to match the color. But it is impossible to maintain the stability of that match. If the inpainting has to be re-applied every six months, when do you stop? When does it become impractical to continue restoring the painting? Besides the costliness, it is a tremendous waste of effort and energy.
Zora's was a wonderful place. Many people tell us how much they miss it. It had a life and it was a very full one. It doesn't exist any longer. Zora's really should be celebrated for the wonderful things that it contributed. It was more than a store, it was an attitude.
Art is a wonderful, wonderful way of life for us. We are very grateful for it, and we would find it very difficult to live unaesthetically. And it can give you all kinds of problems... that's the challenge that we all love.