A materials world: how artists choose materials

Francis Bacon believed it wasn’t possible to tell if a painting was any good until at least 50 years after it had been made. Given that his 1969 triptych of Lucian Freud broke auction records when it sold for $142 million in 2013, it seems he was right. It would also seem logical for painters to choose paint known for its permanence and archival properties. But materials, central to the success of an artwork, are chosen for a wide variety of reasons.

A place in history

One of the unique aspects of painting is that if it’s made properly, a painting will look the same in 500 years’ time as it does once dry. This property has a fantastic allure for artists as it offers the opportunity to communicate with future generations, giving the painter a chance of a place in history.

Motivated in this way, artists like Bacon chose materials because of the permanency of the colours. This did not exclude an experimental approach; Bacon would encourage accidents to occur and use a range of unorthodox tools to create his paintings.

Working on several paintings at once allows Susan Sluglett, a 2013 Jerwood Painting Fellow, to be intuitive and spontaneous while painting, making “the act of painting more a performance, immediate and with less time to ‘stutter'”. Sluglett uses Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour, so her gestures retain their freshness over time.



For some artists, archival properties are not a priority. Jackson Pollock was as inspired by the process of painting as he was interested in the results. He used household paints and it would probably be of little interest to him that his paintings have decayed and cracked over time. It can be argued that his legacy is in his approach, as much as in the objects that he made.

Dutch-born artist Maarten van den Bos also uses household paint, for specific reasons. The key to his materials is that they are water-based and quick drying. This forces him to make changes to the image within a short span of time but also allows for rapid overpainting. Using a dry brushstroke the paintings become more and more like making a drawing with charcoal or soft pencil, the resistance of raw canvas like that of rough paper.


An experimental approach?

Liz Elton, whose own practice is a series of experimental processes in which she exposes her work to the often violent interventions of the elements to achieve results which are “somewhere between painting and photography”.

Liz Elton, Twisted, 2012
Liz Elton, Twisted, 2012


She starts by painting onto transparent material using Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic and Gloss Medium. Taking this work in progress out of the studio she submits it to the elements in locations that suggest “transition and change”, for instance the edge of the sea, sand dunes, or areas of urban regeneration. The landscape enters the work, and the process is documented with photographs, making the final work a combination of painting and photography. The remains can be recycled to make new work such as Twisted, which was selected for the John Moores Painting Prize Exhibition in 2012.

Chicago-born Rebecca Byrne, who was shortlisted for the Griffin Art Prize in 2012, creates mixed media paintings combining materials such as cotton thread and wax with Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour. The materials are “manipulated, stretched and layered, exploring the breadth of what can be achieved”.


An idea or event can have a life past its time without leaving a physical trace to be fully experienced, but looking at a Van Eyck or Holbein today is much the same experience as when those paintings were first made. This immediate contact with history is one of the unique aspects of painting as an art.

*Lead image: Susan Sluglett, Decoy, 2013, oil and charcoal on canvas, 157 x 200 cm, courtesy the artist