Ask the Art Nurse: All about oils.

My question is kinda no-frills, but I hope you’ll answer it: Is there a definitive conservators’ opinion regarding oil paint on acrylic gesso?

I was told by some old-schooler types in graduate school that the only genuinely archival method for oil painting is rabbit’s skin sizing and oil ground, and that it’ll hurt your success at being collected if you don’t use the ‘archivalest’ of the archival. But Gesso  is so ubiquitous, it seems like it’s impossible for conservators not to have to deal with it.

I’ve heard it has more to do with how you stretch – if you’re making strainers instead of stretchers, the supports can’t move with the painting’s expanding/contracting, so acrylic gesso would actually be more stable in that scenario. Is this true?

- Sam

We at the C-Mon art hospital like to think we know everything about all types of art, but when it comes to matters such as gesso and canvas we like to defer to our  illustrious conservator colleagues who work on paintings. In this case we were fortunate to get some advice from one of the true greats, Will Shank, former chief conservator at SFMOMA, now living the high life in Barcelona. He tells us that using rigid oil paint on flexible acrylic ‘gesso’ preparations is okay according to the experts, but the reverse – acrylic over oil is ‘an absolute no-no.’ He also gives you kudos for recognizing that the problems of bad paint adhesion comes from improper stretching tension. He recommends avoiding strainers and always using expandable stretchers. That will help you keep your paint on the canvas and not on the floor in front of it.

He also points out – and this nurse could not agree more – that the word ‘archival’ is meaningless in terms of oil painting – or bronzes, or plaster, or stone, or for that matter, anything that isn’t specifically made of acid-free materials (like paper).

Rx, San Suzie

Have a question for the Art Nurse? E-mail her at suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net.


  1. Deschanel

    Thanks Nurse San Suzie. I worked for a painter many years ago and doing the rabbit-skin glue thing was part of the job. Pain in the ass though, oy. I think it’s a snob factor at work, the idea that the questioner had heard. No doubt collectors want something that seems complex and exotic to non-painters. But really, rabbit-skin glue seems the way to show you can afford assistants, because it’s time consuming and tedious. A good painting on gesso is better than a crap painting on rabbit-skin glue, I imagine.

  2. San-suzie

    Absolutely, Deschanel. I can’t tell you the number of times collectors want something they’ve heard of, or think is “protective”, that is really a time and money waste.