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. Having just broken auction records with the sale of his 1969 tryptych of Lucian Freud for $142 million US dollars, it certainly seems as if he was right and it would seem logical for all painters to choose paint known for its permanency and archival properties. Materials, central to the success of an artwork, are however chosen for a wide variety of reasons. An informal group of painters, Paint Union, formed by artists Rebecca Byrne and Liz Elton provides a forum for painters to discuss their choice of materials.

A Place in History

One of the unique aspects of painting is that, if 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 artist a chance of a place in history.

Motivated in this way, painters 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 Jerwood Painting Fellow 2013 Susan Sluglett to be intuitive and spontaneous whilst painting, ‘…the act of painting more a performance, immediate and with less time to ‘stutter’. Sluglett uses Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour so that her gestures continue to retain their freshness over time.
Susan Sluglett, Decoy,
oil and charcoal on canvas, 157x200cm
   Susan Sluglett, Merrily We Go to Hell II,
oil and charcoal on canvas  


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 it is 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 over painting. 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.

Maarten Van den Bos, Body Fountain,
acrylic and emulsion on canvas, 89.3x78.2cm 
   Maarten Van den Bos, Brainchild,
acrylic and gloss paint on canvas, 30.3x25.2cm

An Experimental Approach?

Founder member Liz Elton wants Paint Union to create opportunities for painters to discuss current ideas and be part of the conversation that drives painting forward.

Being part of a community is important for 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.’

Twisted by Liz Elton
 Liz Elton, Twisted, 2012

Elton starts by painting onto transparent material using Winsor & Newton Artists’ 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 the piece ‘Twisted’ which was selected for the John Moores Painting Prize in 2012.

Short listed for the Griffin Art Prize 2012 Chicago born Rebecca Byrne creates mixed media paintings combining a range of 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.’ Byrne has always found talking with fellow artists invaluable and forming Paint Union is her way of extending that conversation.
 Liz Elton, Sea,
pigment print on paper
  Rebecca Byrne, Concertina 4, 2013,
oil, embroidery thread and wax on linen, 27x35cm

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 and this immediate contact with history is one of the unique aspects of painting as an art.