Category: Ask the Art Nurse

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.

Ask the Art Nurse: Ball of Wax.

I made a sculpture about 4 months ago, mostly comprised of candle wax. I had no idea how to preserve the wax from breaking and melting away if it was put in high temperatures, so i decided to coat it with shellac, primarily out of fear of using resins, due to their toxicity. A few weeks ago i was moving the piece to a different location, left it temporarily outside and realized that the wax was getting soft. Now that i know that the shellac is not working the way I intended it to, I have no idea what i should use to preserve the piece. Whatever material I use, it must be clear, and must protect the piece from melting… Any suggestions?

– Daphne

Good question! This raises one of the most common misconceptions in the art world: whether something made of an inherently soft, degradable, or otherwise delicate/unstable material can be protected by coating it with something. The answer: No. You can’t keep a soft surface from melting in the heat by protecting it with a coating — whether it’s shellac or a synthetic resin. We love the suppleness and depth of wax sculpture just as much as the next art medical professional (think: Medardo Rosso, or the heaving animatronic breasts of Britney Spears at Madame Tussauds). But all waxes, whether paraffin, beeswax or microcrystalline are sensitive to heat.

The only thing you can do to keep it from melting is to keep it cool, that is, indoors and away from heat sources. In the future, if you want to use wax for sculpting, look for wax with a higher melting temperature. If you’re getting your wax at the 99-cent store, try using the ones that don’t have a scent (they tend to be harder). If you don’t mind materials that melt, however, I’d like to recommend lard. If the piece doesn’t work out, you can always cook with it.

– Rx, San Suzie

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

New feature: Ask the Art Nurse.

Second Chance Nurse, by Richard Prince.

As part of the expanding line of services here at, we are debuting a regular new feature called Ask the Art Nurse, which will be headlined by the extraordinary San Suzie (who has written on conservation issues on this blog in the past). A sculpture and architectural conservator with 20+ years of experience, San Suzie has restored everything from Civil War firearms to sculptures by Claes Oldenburg to John Lautner’s Chemosphere house to a steel mill’s worth of abstract public art works. As part of her daily grind, she regularly treats pieces that are battered, bug-eaten, cracked or poorly made to begin with.

To help all you genre-busting artiste-types avoid the latter category, she has kindly agreed to let C-Mon‘s readers pick her highly knowledgeable brain. So, if you are in the process of creating a piece, and you don’t know your polymers from your Pearoefoam or want to try welding beer cans or casting in lard, now would be the time to submit your technical questions – before some budget-strapped museum has to contend with your disintegrating piece of brilliance. If sculpture or installation isn’t your specialty, no worries. San Suzie will consult with her extensive cabal of conservator-colleauges, who can let you know what that coat of varnish will do to your oils.

E-mail all queries to suzie [at] c-monster [dot] net. (Do not leave them in the comments below.) San Suzie will choose the best questions and answer them, at periodic intervals, on the blog. If you so desire, your identity will be kept in the strictest confidence.