The complete presentation by George O'Hanlon, founder and director of Natural Pigments, on the best practices in painting given at the Figurative Art Convention & Expo (FACE) in Miami on Friday, November 10, 2017. The lecture is based on studies of the reaction of painting supports, oils and pigments to changes in the environment during the past hundred years making it possible to understand the behavior of paintings. Modern commercial oil paints present new issues to conservators as they observe defects in paint films caused by new pigments and additives used in their formulations.

In recent years, we have witnessed an increased interest among artists about historical painting techniques and materials. Why this trend is occurring is subject to much speculation, but some may say it is due to the revival in figurative art. I would prefer to say that interest in figurative art never really died out, but rather it has survived abstract art.

An important part of this interest in materials is a concern for the longevity of the paintings created by contemporary artists, a care observed by the old masters in their work.

Cracked, cupped and blistered paint attests to the presence of considerable mechanical forces in paintings. Not until recent years was it believed that the movements of the canvas or panel were the primary cause of paint cracking and deterioration. This led early investigators to concentrate on the behavior of the support. Their studies of the reaction of painting supports to changes in the environment made it possible to understand the behavior of paintings.

The Importance of Supports

Changes in temperature and relative humidity cause the materials of a painting to contract and expand. The rate of expansion and contraction is at different rates, one for the canvas or panel, another for the size and yet another for the ground and paint film.

The rate of expansion and contraction is even different for different pigments in a paint film. The schematic shows a more flexible paint segment bound by stiffer segments. (Berger 1994)

Compression and Expansion of Paint Film
How cracks develop in paint from compression and expansion forces caused by cycles of relative humidity and temperature.

In the example above, changes in temperature and relative humidity cause disproportionate compression of the central segment, which occurs during contraction and expansion cycles. In the contraction phase the center segment is stretched and the segment shows early signs of mechanical failure. Another expansion cycle occurs, and upon return to its rest state the paint layer does not recover its elasticity due to compression and expansion cycles and a crack develops.

If the canvas is to act as the support for the rest of the painting, it should be stiff and strong. Ideally the size, ground and paint supported by the canvas should be more flexible than the support. However, the opposite is true, particularly at low relative humidity.

Canvas expands and contracts with changes in relative humidity causing cracks and cupping in the paint layer

Paintings on stretched canvas deteriorate because each component of the painting responds differently to changes in the environment. Studies show that much of the tension is carried in the paint and ground, not in the canvas.

Re-alignment of the forces in the painting causes the paint to cup and separate from the canvas. We can demonstrate the disparity in the stiffness of materials in a painting on canvas by dipping a rubber ball in plaster. As the plaster dries it becomes stiff and inflexible, yet the rubber ball remains plastic and when deformed, the plaster cracks and falls away.

Here we can see the combination of crack patterns caused by cycles of large changes in relative humidity and stretcher expansion. (Mecklenburg 2007)

Paint film cracking caused by relative humidity cycling and stretcher expansion. (Photo by Marion Mecklenburg)

What researchers found is the paint film and its support become a single composite structure in which all components interact with one another. Hence, paint on canvas behaves in a completely different manner to that on a rigid support. Thus a painting might crack on one type of support but not on another. Paintings on rigid supports, such as this one by Flemish-born painter Gerard Van Spaendonck painted on marble in 1800, exhibit little mechanical failure.

Gerard Van Spaendonck (1746-1822) Bouquet of Tulips, Roses and an Opium Poppy, with a Pale Clouded Yellow Butterfly, a Red Longhorn Beetle and a Seven-spotted Ladybug. Oil on marble.
Gerard Van Spaendonck (1746-1822) Bouquet of Tulips, Roses and an Opium Poppy, with a Pale Clouded Yellow Butterfly, a Red Longhorn Beetle and a Seven-spotted Ladybug. Oil on marble.

Cracking and paint failure can be prevented by painting on a rigid support with greater stiffness than the paint layer.

Rigid supports such as wood provide greater stability for paint films than canvas. However, wood is hygroscopic, meaning that it readily absorbs water and hence is affected by changes in relative humidity. Engineered wood products, such as plywood, fiberboard, and hardboard provide greater stability due to the ply construction or random orientation of the wood fibers, yet are still susceptible to environmental changes.

To understand the amount of stress generated by different components of a painting, we will use a graph to show the percentage of swelling or shrinkage an unrestrained material experiences when responding to changes in temperature or humidity. By ‘unrestrained’ we mean that the material is not inhibited in any way from expanding or contracting.

For example, a piece of loose fabric or wood that swells and shrinks as the humidity in a room changes. By measuring these dimensional changes we can know just how responsive the material is. Now if this same material is restrained in some way, such as stretched canvas, we can sense how the amount of tension will rise and fall as the canvas tightens and slackens, even though its outermost dimensions stay the same.

In this way, the measurement of free swelling strains are directly related to the amount of stress generated in a painting whenever there are changes in environmental conditions.

Free swelling strain of linen due to changes in relative humidity. (Mecklenburg 2007)

If linen is free to expand and contract it changes dimensions with changes in relative humidity. What is important regarding the dimensional response of linen to relative humidity is that while it is expected to contract when it dries, above 80% relative humidity it also contracts.

Free swelling strain of scotch pine due to changes in relative humidity. (Mecklenburg 2007)

The free swelling of wood with changes in relative humidity is orthotropic, meaning that a particular cut of wood expands and contracts in two planes perpendicular to each other. Wood swells much more in the cross-grain tangential direction than the longitudinal direction parallel with the grain. (Mecklenburg 2007)

Hide glue is only stable between 30% and 60% relative humidity. Oil paints, however, respond very little to changes in relative humidity. As a composite structure the free swelling strains of the materials traditionally used in oil painting is very diverse. (Mecklenburg 2007)

Free swelling strain of materials in an oil painting due to changes in relative humidity. (Adapted from Mecklenburg 2007)

A good way to visualize the composite nature of painting materials is by the swelling of the materials of a painting on a wood panel. Because a wood panel is thick relative to the other layers, its response determines the dimensional change in the other layers. At high relative humidity, the wood expands faster than the other layers, and actually stretches the other layers. At low relative humidity, it shrinks compressing the gesso and paint layers. (Erhardt 1995)

Metal such as copper, on the other hand, do not change with changes in relative humidity. Although affected by changes in temperature these changes can be reduced by composite structures, such as aluminum composite materials (ACM), that are composed of two sheets of aluminum bonded to a polystyrene core or through structural improvements like that of aluminum honeycomb panels where a honeycomb core is covered on both sides with an aluminum skin. Materials such as these can prevent much of the cracking and paint loss found on stretched canvas supports and even wood panels.

What is Oil Paint?

Oil paint consists of two basic components: pigment for color and a binder to act as a glue. These interact to form a composite or we may think of them as a system.

The primary function of the binder is to carry and bind the pigment. For the paint film to be cohesive, the pigment must be enveloped within the binder. Second, to impart working characteristics. It should allow the painter to manipulate the paint consistently. Third, to secure the color to the surface in a stable and long lasting manner. As long as it’s applied with conscientious technique, pigment that’s well dispersed within a quality binder should dry without wrinkling, cracking or buckling.

One way to think about the relationship between pigment and binder is a brick wall. Every mason knows there is an ideal ratio of mortar to brick. Too much mortar and the wall is weak. Not enough mortar and the bricks fall apart.

The same relationship exists between the pigments and binder in dried paint. We call this relationship or ratio the pigment volume concentration or PVC. Pigment volume concentration (PVC) is the volume of pigment compared to the volume of all solids. If paint has a PVC of 30, than 30% of the total binder/pigment is pigment and 70% is binder solids.

Pigment Volume Concentration
Paint film properties based on Pigment Volume Concentration (PVC)

The point at which there is just enough binder to wet pigment particles is called the critical pigment volume concentration (CPVC). For almost all colors this is between 45% and 55% PVC. Films with lower concentrations of pigment have more gloss but as the PVC increases they become increasingly matte. Films with high percentages of pigment are more permeable to moisture and susceptible to solvents. This is because with more pigment, there is less binder to fill the voids between pigment particles. This porosity leaves the film open to the environment. Films with higher pigmentation have increasingly lower tensile strength.

Volume of oil and pigment for oil colors based on CPVC
Volume of oil and pigment for oil colors based on the Critical Pigment Volume Concentration (CPVC)

Most paint in tubes contain enough binder to wet and envelope pigment particles and so are at about the critical pigment volume concentration for that color.

Fat-Over-Lean Rule

You are probably familiar with the fat-over-lean rule. What the fat-over-lean rule implies is flexible over less flexible paint layers. When you apply a more flexible layer on top of another, the final paint film will be more resilient and more resistant to cracking. Increasing flexibility is accomplished by adding more medium or oil, or lowering the pigment volume concentration of the paint with each succeeding paint layer.

However, this is typically difficult to achieve in practice. Most artists don't understand what constitutes fat or what is lean. It is impractical to measure the ratio of pigment and binder while painting. What I will tell you next may sound like heresy but you do not need the follow this rule if you use paint at its CPVC, which is applying paint straight from the tube, and paint thinly. On the other hand, working in thick paint layers and/or with lots of medium or oil added to paint requires one to observe the fat-over-lean rule.

Issues with “Traditional” Oil Painting Mediums

Perhaps the most common question asked by artists is what medium should I use in my oil painting? We do not have enough time to answer that question properly, but I would like to discuss resin-based mediums. Resins-based mediums are those made with resin dissolved in a solvent which include dammar gum popularized as a medium in the last century by Ralph Mayer, and mastic gum, used in a medium known as megilp and that continues to be used by many artists in Maroger medium.

The use of resinous mediums in oil paint is certainly not new. However, the use of resins mixed with oil paint did not get widespread use until the latter half of the eighteenth century. Notable among artists using such mediums was Sir Joshua Reynolds whose influence swayed generations of artists to incorporate resinous mediums in their work. Artists who mediums in their paintings often claim that paint films incorporating such mediums show no signs of deterioration from their use. Whether one accepts these claims or not, an important consideration that appears to have been overlooked is the solubility of the dried paint film and what happens during varnishing and cleaning paintings.

For centuries it has been common practice for artists or someone else to apply a coating of varnish to paintings. Such varnishes became darker, more yellow and obscure within a few decades of application.It has been common practice to clean paintings at intervals, removing the darkened and obscuring varnish.

The solvents typically used to apply a varnish are largely benign to an oil painting, so that the varnish can be applied without adverse affect to the paint. The resins used in varnishes can only be removed by the dissolving action of organic solvents.

The task in cleaning then is to use solvents that will remove the varnish but not damage the painting. The primary concern is that paint might be removed during cleaning. Another risk that has received considerable attention lately by conservation is 'leaching,' the potential for soluble compounds in the paint to be extracted during cleaning. Loss of these components has been linked to the embrittlement of the paint film.

If the painting contains dammar or mastic resin in the paint film,cleaning or removing the varnish may swell and soften the resins in the paint layer, resulting in damage or worse the removal of thin paint layers containing these resins.

Differences Between Traditional and Modern Oil Paints

With the introduction of synthetic painting media, artists’ oils are in most cases still considered “traditional” painting materials and often mistaken for them. On the contrary, oil paints have experienced new production methods since the late eighteenth century. Paintings produced in the last 60–80 years generally suffer deterioration phenomena never or rarely observed in traditional oil paintings. In particular, twentieth century oil paintings have conservation problems related to the fragility and the sensitivity of the paint layers.These phenomena can be understood in relation to two main reasons:

• The artist does not know what’s in the paint used.

• The artist does not understand how additives and pigments used in modern oil paints interact and react with the environment.

While in the past the artist was aware about the materials used and often prepared the materials, from the late nineteenth century artists generally did not know exactly what they used in their paintings. In the twentieth century, because of toxic concerns, the use of lead white diminished and titanium white was introduced as a replacement white. The problem is that oil paints using titanium dioxide dry to extremely weak and somewhat brittle films.

Manufacturers of artists’ materials introduced zinc oxide into titanium white paints to give them additional strength. Paints made with only zinc oxide not only became more available to artists but most of the lead white paints often contain zinc white. All of these paints can become extremely brittle in as little as three years of drying even under “ideal”museum conditions. In addition to white paints, many of the light colors labeled “hues” also contain zinc oxide and they can potentially become equally brittle. (Mecklenburg 2007, Maachia 2015, Osmond 2012, 2014)

Henry Cliffe panting of 1959
Detail of Henry Cliffe panting of 1959 showing cracking of lead white and zinc white paint (Mecklenburg 2007)

This is a detail of an abstract expressionist painting from 1959 by Henry Cliffe. The oil paints used in this painting contain lead whie and zinc white. This painting was rolled and the damage was extensive. In addition to the severe cracking, there is extensive interlayer cleavage. (Mecklenburg 2007)

Layer zinc oxide oil paint delaminating from acrylic ground
Layer of zinc oxide oil paint delaminating from acrylic ground. (Photo by Marion Mecklenburg)

Paints containing zinc oxide also bond poorly to adjacent layers of paints and grounds in paintings. Although oil paints generally adhere well to acrylic grounds. In the case of the lead white containing zinc oxide, the paint could be laminated from the acrylic ground. In this sample the layers separated from each other cleanly. (Mecklenburg 2007, Maor 2008)

Carbon black oil paint exhibits wide spread cracking over zinc oxide in Franz Kline, Palladio, 1961. (Rogala 2010)

Here is an example of cracking of carbon black painted over zinc oxide oil paint on Franz Kline’s painting Palladio, completed in 1961. In the same painting the carbon black paint remains intact where it is painted over lead white, but exhibits wide spread cracking over zinc white paint. (Rogala 2010)

Zinc oxide is very reactive in drying oils, forming zinc soaps in paint films. Zinc white pigment particles are so small that they can react away diminishing their light reflectance. This is seen in the figure of the father in Luke Fildes’ 1890 painting of The Doctor. The father appears to be fading away in the background caused by the chemical and physical changes to zinc oxide. (Shimadzu 2008)

Luke Fildes' 1890 painting of The Doctor
The father painted with zinc oxide is gradually fading in Luke Fildes' 1890 painting The Doctor

Oil paints are complex in that different pigments cause paints to dry with very different mechanical properties. To understand how each component of the paint film behaves, we need to understand terms used in materials research. A stress-strain curve is one way to measure how strong and flexible a material is, and when it is liable to break.

In the diagram the curved line represents the behavior of many materials when being stretched. At first, the line rises steeply as the force required to overcome initial resistance to stretching increases and begins to elongate. The breaking point of the materials is represented at the end of the line. The amount of force needed to elongate the material is called the ‘stress,’ while the percentage the material stretches is known as the ‘strain.’

Another important concept is called the ‘yield point.’ This is the point when the material is stretched so far it can no longer return to its original shape and so is permanently deformed or damaged. For most artist materials and supports this is less than one percent (0.5%) and shows just how little strain paintings can endure.

Stress stain of paint
Stress strain of oil paint shows relative flexibility of different colors (Adapted from Mecklenburg 2007)

The graph shows the stress-strain results for different oil paints after drying for at least 12 years in a controlled environment. Paints made with the earth colors develop little strength but remain flexible. Paints made with titanium white and lead white have nearly the same initial strength but the titanium white is weak and breaks readily. Titanium white can be considered a weak and brittle paint. Paint made with the zinc oxide has very high strength, but is a very brittle paint.

It is necessary to understand that while the strength of paint is important its ability to stretch (its flexibility) is of far greater importance. It doesn’t take a great deal of force to crack thin paint films even though they have relatively high strength.Paints made with titanium white and lead white have nearly the same initial strength but the titanium white is weak and breaks readily.

Traditional and Modern Drying Oils

Besides the traditional drying oils of linseed, poppy seed and walnut oil, other drying or semi-drying oils are employed in modern oil paints, sometimes as cheap substitutes for traditional drying oils. Although apparently dried, semi-drying oils applied in thick layer shave been observed to ‘weep’ on modern oil paintings. Here an experiment with a cadmium hue in a mixture of sunflower-safflower oil weeps five years after the paint dried. (Boon 2014)

Paint made with sunflower-safflower oil weeping after 5 years
A tube of Norma Fleischfarbe pink paint (a) used by van Hemert for his Seven series paintings. The paint was used in 2002 for thin and thick paint application (b) on a nonpermeable support (Photos were taken in 2005 and 2010). In late 2009 the thicker impasto swatch (c) showed a molten appearance followed by drip formation (Boon 2014)

Additives in Modern Oil Paints

Among the changes to modern oil paints have been the use of dispersing agents and stabilizers. The first to be used in modern oil formulations was aluminum stearate. This metal soap was first used in artists paints in the early twentieth century. (Tumosa 2001) Since that time other agents have been used in modern oil paints, such as magnesium stearate, zinc stearate, and waxes, such as castor wax.

The addition of stabilizers is to keep the pigments in suspension, prevent oil and pigment separation, prolong shelf life and provide uniform handling properties of the paints in tubes. Although these additions to oil paints perform these functions well, they also reduce the cost of oil paint production thereby creating a cheaper paint since lower amounts of pigments are needed.

In modern manufacturing processes, many other additives have been included in oil formulations. Resins, fillers, surfactants and other adulterants in different amounts is quite common especially for less expensive paints. Unfortunately, industrial secrets do not permit one to know about the addition of these materials and labels on tube oils are vague. (Izzo 2010, Fuster-López 2016)

Haze on paintings
Haze on painting caused by efflorescence

A phenomena observed on modern paints is a milky haze on the surface of the paint film. After aging, superficial efflorescences are observed in modern paint films, in particular those with higher amounts of additives. This phenomena is likely the effect of the migration to the surface of additives, such as stearates. (Schilling 1998, 1999; Ordonez 1998, Akerlund 2013)


While the development of modern pigments and synthetic resins have resulted in paints with greater lightfastness and stability, the use of zinc oxide, semi-drying oils, stabilizers and other additives have not been without their issues. In review, the issues include:

• Zinc oxide creates brittle oil paint films and can cause superficial layers to crack and delaminate

• Zinc oxide reacts away causing color changes

• Semi-drying oils may not polymerize completely resulting in “weeping” paint.

• Stearates and waxes can cause efflorescences

To ensure the posterity of your oil paintings:

• Paint on rigid supports

• Avoid resin-based mediums that change oil paint solubility

• Use lead white and avoid zinc white

• Become aware of all ingredients in your paint

• Learn how the components of commercial paints interact and respond to the environment

Painting Best Practices Workshop

This lecture presents a small portion of the information presented in the three-day Painting Best Practices workshop offered by Natural Pigments each year in New York, Los Angeles and other locations. To learn more about the workshop, visit the workshop page.


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Osmond, Gillian. Zinc White: A Review of Zinc Oxide Pigment Properties and Implications for Stability in Oil-Based Paintings. AICCM Bulletin. Vol. 33, 2012.

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