For the Artist: Testing Your Materials

Poor old Rabo Karabekian. He was the abstract expressionist in Vonnegut’s Bluebeard who lost fame, fortune and his place in the annals of art history because the paint he used fell off his canvases:

“The whole planet is now fubar with post-war miracles but back in the early 1960s I was one of the first persons to be totally wrecked by one – an acrylic wall paint whose colors, according to the advertisements of the day, would….outlive the smile on the Mona Lisa.”

The name of the paint was Sateen-Dura Luxe. Mona Lisa is still smiling. And your local paint dealer, if he has been in business for any length of time, will laugh in your face if you ask for Sateen-Dura Luxe.

These days most manufacturers go to great lengths to test, standardize, and provide technical information about their materials, but there will be times when the artist will want to test the materials they use themselves. One way to do this with a minimum of fuss and bother is the Oddy Test.

Andrew Oddy, former Keeper of Conservation at the British Museum, came up with this “quick and dirty” method to determine the stability of display materials. The suspect material (e.g. fibreboard, carpet, paper, etc.) is put in a sealed container with a small amount of distilled water and clean samples of silver, copper and lead, metals which are highly sensitive to potentially harmful volatiles such as sulpher, acid and aldehydes. The sealed sample is heated to 60 degrees Centigrade for 28 days, after which the metals are examined for changes in appearance – e.g., silver tarnish, copper corrosion such as verdigris, or white deposits on lead.

This is the standard test, but variations can certainly be made. The sealed container can be heated with a desk lamp, or on a heating pad, instead of in an oven, and if change to the metals is seen before 28 days, one doesn’t have to keep the experiment running full term. The idea is to get a general picture, not a precise measurement.

This test can be used “as is” to see if the artist’s material itself emits self-damaging volatiles. It can also be used as a rough and ready accelerated aging chamber. In this case the artist’s material is substituted for the metals and bits of display or framing materials added to the jar. (One might want to add a few drops of ethanol to the water to prevent organic materials from molding). Or, one could expose the artist’s material to agents that are known to emit harmful volatiles (e.g. rubber to emit sulphur, white vinegar for acetic acid, etc.) to see how well the material, or protective coating on the material would hold up under adverse conditions. Organics like paper don’t show damage as readily as the metal samples, so it might be necessary to extend the experimental time.

This is just one of the tests that artists can run to get a small peek at what the future might hold for their creations. They are not gold standard analytic tests, but they will help give artists greater insight into the materials they use and how they interact with the environments they are put into.

More on Oddy Test:

More on other simple tests: