Colin McCahon - Visible Mysteries No. 8

Featured Work

Colin McCahon

Visible Mysteries No. 8
acrylic on board

This painting was the subject of a recent study by Sarah Hillary, senior conservator at the Auckland Art Gallery and Dr Tom Learner, the head of contemporary art research at the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, USA.
Sarah Hillary has written about the project:

Study of the early use of PVA and acrylic paint by New Zealand artists

Visible Mysteries No 8 by Colin McCahon is part of a study of the early use of PVA and Acrylic paint by New Zealand artists.The project will provide an opportunity for conservators at the Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa in collaboration with the Getty Conservation Institute to investigate the early use of polymer emulsion paints, such as PVA and acrylic, by New Zealand artists.

Dr Tom Learner examining the painting in Auckland, New Zealand, 2010

It will include the identification of the materials and processes through archival research, interviews with artists and art historians, examination of paintings and materials analysis.  The results will help to determine how to preserve and treat the paintings as well as contributing to art historical understanding. The study of polymer emulsions in New Zealand has not been explored in any depth.  It is timely to carry out this research as the paintings reach maturity and while we can still interview people who were directly involved.

Polymer emulsion paints such as PVA and acrylic were first used by artists in New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s.  At this time, public art galleries had been professionalised, and dealer galleries were beginning to develop in the main centres. Post-war artists had an infrastructure to support their careers, and the avant-garde in their number were beginning to experiment with materials. 

Dr Tom Learner examining the painting in Auckland, New Zealand, 2010

Both PVA and acrylic paints were synthetic resins mixed with water which had properties quite unlike traditional oils.  These polymer emulsions dried quickly, could be applied to flexible supports, had low odour and brushes used to apply them could be cleaned in water.  

PVA emulsion paints were developed in Germany during World War Two as alternatives to oil paint due to shortages of linseed oil, but weren’t manufactured in New Zealand until the 1950s. By 1965, artists such as Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters were using PVAs to produce paintings such as Numerals and Painting No. 1.  They have delicate matt finishes and are primarily black and white. The new materials posed issues for preservation and early PVA paintings are easily abraded and cleaning can leave permanent marks. 

The introduction of acrylic emulsions soon followed PVA, but initially problems with drying reduced their popularity.  However, by the 1970s the acrylics were far superior to the PVAs and McCahon and Walters both took up acrylics in that decade and continued to use them for the rest of their painting careers.  Many other influential New Zealand artists used polymer emulsions, such as Milan Mrkusich, Robert Ellis and Ralph Hotere, all with interesting results.  The New Zealand artists were not alone, internationally there was a great interest in the new synthetic materials and their fast curing qualities.  

Dr Tom Learner examining the painting in Auckland, New Zealand, 2010

Australian artist, Ian Fairweather had been using PVAs since the 1950s, and British pop artist, David Hockney was using acrylic paint in his swimming pool paintings from the 1960s.  In both cases, the technique was dependent on the paint being quick-drying and not soluble in the next layer of paint. 

PVAs and acrylics are made from thermoplastic resins and are complex systems with many additives.  They are relatively new materials for conservators to deal with and consequently the effects of treatments are relatively unknown compared to traditional oil paints that have been around for hundreds of years.  There are many recent collaborative studies looking at the analysis, physical properties and treatment of modern paints in many countries including the recently completed study of acrylic by Tate in London, the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C., and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI), and currently a collaborative project (Asia-Pacific Twentieth Century Conservation Art Research Network (APTCCARN)) that is underway in Australia lead by the University of Melbourne, Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation. 

Documentation of the materials and techniques used by New Zealand artists in the early period of this new technology will be extremely useful in conjunction with the results of this international research.  Our association with the Getty Conservation Institute and APTCCARN will ensure that the results of this study will be widely distributed.  The New Zealand study is supported by the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board Environment and Heritage committee and Creative New Zealand. 

Sarah Hillary 2010