Interpreting the surface: the application of surface science to artists' acrylic emulsion paint films

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Chem Eng and Analytical Science


Artists' acrylic emulsion paints gained popularity in the early 1960s, after production began in the mid 1950s. Today, acrylic paints sell equally to oil paints and acrylic emulsion-based works of art continue to form significant proportions of modern and contemporary art collections. Well-known users include David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Bridget Riley, Patrick Caulfield and John Hoyland. Some of the oldest acrylic emulsion paintings are beginning to require conservation treatment as distracting marks, deposited soiling, loss of surface gloss and decreased colour saturation become increasingly apparent.
It is therefore proposed to carry out systematic investigations of the surfaces of acrylic emulsion paint films, as this is where the cumulative effects of exposure to light, soiling, pollutants, accidents, environment, conservation treatments and migrated materials become concentrated. As yet the variety of materials present on the surfaces of these paints have not been fully characterised and the nature of the interactions between migrated surfactant and deposited soiling have not been explored. The mechanisms and consequences of the degradation of surfactants with light exposure (display) have also to be determined, including whether degradation is dependent on pigment type, and whether there are any consequences of the removal of surfactant (through conservation treatment and/or display) on the underlying paint surfaces. It is essential to establish for example, whether the removal of surfactant enhances the vulnerability of paint surfaces to subsequent light/soiling exposure. Equally, it is important to document the consequences of leaving surfactant and soiling on the surface of these relatively soft paint films, as there is a risk that soiling can become permanently embedded into the paint surface.
The proposal combines the expertise and knowledge available at the scientific departments at both Tate and the Getty Conservation Institute with the instrumentation and surface analysis expertise available at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science (CEAS) at The University of Manchester University. Our understanding of the vulnerability of these paint surfaces will be enhanced through the scientific technologies and methodologies that will be applied to these paints for the first time. Research results will significantly contribute to determining best practice for the reliable care and conservation of these unique and increasingly valuable modern and contemporary works of art; thereby helping to ensure their survival into the future.

Planned Impact

Direct beneficiaries of the proposed research will include: conservators - particularly the easel painting and preventive conservation disciplines; conservation educators; conservation scientists; interested artists; surface and latex polymer scientists; paint manufacturers (e.g. Golden Artists Colours); latex and latex additive manufacturers (e.g. Dow Chemicals); materials historians; insurance companies (e.g. AXA Art); collectors; collections care managers; as well as curators and art historians with an interest in particular artists and/or the nature and appearance of the surface of modern and contemporary works of art. Previous research has resulted in the formation of several successful dissemination mechanisms which will support the proposed Fellowship and hence research outcomes will filter through to beneficiaries within the time frame of the proposed research.

Beneficiaries will gain knowledge that will aid decision making processes regarding the presentation, interpretation, conservation and preservation of works of art containing acrylic emulsion paint layers. Global interest in these paints is now high and recent research findings are now beginning to influence conservation practice. Research outcomes from the Fellowship will directly contribute to the: understanding and appreciation of the appearance of these works of art; conservation treatment decisions (the impact of solvent use, surfactant removal, pigment loss etc), collections-care directives (cleaning vs. not cleaning) and preventive conservation policy (dusting, display, environment and cleaning cycles). Paint manufacturers have also demonstrated interest in this area, in one case (Golden Artists Colours) resulting in research exploring potential formulation changes to address conservation concerns. Established collaborations (Dow/GCI/Tate) will also benefit through the refinement of research questions pertaining to the removal of accumulated soiling layers from these paint films, contributing to the production of new/refined cleaning methods. The Fellowship will also help to maintain and promote Tate's centre of excellence in modern and contemporary paint research (most other research is undertaken in the USA); while simultaneously building new heritage science fields within regional areas of the United Kingdom. One of the most important transferable skills to be developed by the Fellow is the acquisition of knowledge and technical language from each participant discipline, facilitating the ability to devise, deliver and effectively contextualise and communicate research outcomes.

Engagement with beneficiaries will occur through: presentations at the host and partner institutions; presentations at national and international scientific and conservation conferences; Tate, Manchester University and GCI websites; two academic papers per year; email distributed newsletters (one per year); participation in professional workshops for conservators (e.g. Cleaning Acrylic Painted Surfaces, GCI) and for conservation students (e.g. from 2003-2009, 10 presentations were delivered to conservation training programs) and other expected invitations. Academic papers will critically evaluate research findings, placing results into a broad context as modelled by a forthcoming Reviews in Conservation article by Ormsby and Learner and a presentation given at the recent Section Française-International Institute for Conservation (SF-IIC) meeting (see publications list). The collaborative nature of this research will ensure that dissemination and engagement with beneficiaries will take place within a global forum, facilitated by two highly esteemed cultural heritage partners - Tate and the Getty Conservation Institute - who are both global leaders in modern and contemporary art materials research; this will be aided by the formation of new links with surface and polymer sci


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/H032436/1 01/09/2010 30/09/2014 £274,584
AH/H032436/2 Transfer AH/H032436/1 01/10/2014 30/04/2015 £45,369
Description Re research methods: It was found that it is best to use several complementary analytical techniques to examine the surface of artists' paints especially when characterising materials with a similar structure. Synchrotron X-ray imaging with soft X-rays (NEXAFS imaging) was identified as a potential tool bridging a gap in information provided by analytical techniques used in the laboratory for surface and bulk characterisation of these primarily organic materials. Access to ToF-SIMS is very beneficial as a complement to surface X-ray analysis.
Re materials: The impact of wet cleaning treatments on the surfaces of model paint films was investigated in terms of residues and changes to the chemistry of the paint films itself (e.g. impact on pigment, binder, etc).
Re people: Research capability has been increased for the immediate future because the project led to an academic position for the PI. This research is being continued with the collaborative networks and resources developed during the award.
Exploitation Route Outcomes can be taken forward in several ways. 1. The findings can be further developed and refined through continued collaboration between the PI and project partners and other academic, non-academic and industrial partners. 2. The findings can be applied to other materials with a significant organic component e.g. other materials from the 20th century (plastics) and historic/modern textiles. 3. The findings could be further developed to optimise methods of surface analysis and imaging on insulating materials. All three of these avenues have potential benefits for fundamental and applied science more broadly and could be taken forward by the PI, project partners and experimentalists operating the relevant analytical techniques at universities, large scale national research facilities and in industry. The overarching aim of the scientific investigations is to inform conservation practice on modern materials.
Sectors Chemicals,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description Non-academic impacts of this award are currently being developed following a period of detailed scientific investigation over the funding period. Areas in which impact is in development include partnerships with regional museums and translation of project results into best practice for conservation scientists and conservators working with acrylic paints and acrylic paint based works-of-art. Exploration of possible interdisciplinary activities spanning theory and practice of modern and contemporary art and science is underway although concrete events or outputs have not yet been developed. These highly interdisciplinary activities are challenging to develop independently outside existing collaborative networks due to funding and time constraints faced by all potential collaborators. It is envisaged that over the next few years these impacts will be felt as the PI of the award establishes herself in the School of Design at the University of Leeds which is an environment well-suited to facilitate the development of non-academic relationships between the Arts and Sciences.
Description ARHC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership programme PhD studentship with Tate
Amount £100,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/R003068/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2018 
End 10/2018
Description 2011 MOSI 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact ?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011
Description 2011 Uni Manchester Science Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact ?
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011