Monday, March 28, 2011

Extending The Life Of Your Watercolor Paintings ; The Importance Of Doing Your Own Lightfastness Experiment

It is summer now and as we are nearing the month of April, the sun seems to be blazing hotter than usual.  I'm talking about sunlight that can cook an egg on concrete in minutes.  Hot and painful on the skin and with a brightness that impairs your vision for the first few minutes when you go indoors.  Perfect weather though for testing your paints for lightfastness.  Shown above is my setup. I take out my test frames whenever we get this blazing sun every summer and pack up whenever rainy season starts.  I borrowed my dad's cart/table and placed the framed testing strips on it.  The mobility is perfect for realigning the frames to receive the most direct sun on the strips.
I took the cart aside to take a closer shot and for that few minutes, the sun exposure was really painful on the skin.  Talk about sun-baked.

For those who have already done the test, the setup might be familiar and you would be right if you're thinking I used the procedures as a guide.  One of the most wonderfully extensive and free online resource for a watercolor artist.  The link to, on how to do the setup, will be provided later.  That will take care of the How To.  I used it more as a guide though and made changes because of inavailability of some materials.  Handprint's was more extensive and more thorough.

What we will be discussing instead is Why... why you should perform the test.  True, it is time consuming and will cost you money.  You will also be using up paint for non-rendering purpose.  Artist grade paints and papers are expensive.  But maybe, after considering the factors below, you would come to the same conclusion, all the effort and expense will be actually saving you money later.

One of the most important reasons to do the test is for your ease of mind.  The question you would most often get asked when people realize your painting is in watercolor is about the expected lifespan of your painting.  Because of careless practices in the past and use of student grade paints for "professional" watercolor paintings, collectors were left with the impression that if it is in watercolor, it should be good only for a few years.  Either they pass your painting up to look for more durable art, or they price it way below its value (in consideration for its shorter lifespan).  But if you are confident and know you used lightfast colors on your palette, then you would know and can demand the true worth of your painting.

Another good reason to do the test is because you might find the manufacturer's ratings for permanence and the actual performance of the paint to have a discrepancy.  I'm not saying they are deliberately manipulating the test so the results would be favorable for their product.  Far from it. The companies are subject to the same test standards.  Just that what if your expectancy regarding their rating and the true meaning of their rating do not match in the first place.  It is better when you do the actual test and see the results for yourself.

Also, in the past, I tended to rely on other artists' recommendations, thinking if it is good enough for them, it must be ok to use.  Which is how I ended up with 3 tubes of a yellow that not only tends to gray on its own but also pops (small exploding sound) and tries to escape its tube when the cap is opened... an expensive yellow too.  A red that shows fading within 10 years and a blue that unexpectedly faded even faster than the red.   Relying on other's judgement may cost you not just money for materials you would end up discarding later.  It may also cost you your reputation.  I'm actually relieved that the paintings that had unexpected fading (early paintings 10-15 years ago) were very few. And that when I decided to sell professionally, I have long since changed to a lightfast palette.   Do the test to save and use the money to buy better performing paints.

The knowledge you would gain can also help guide you on how to use the "questionable paints" that you have.  Many of these fugitive paints have colors or characteristic that are distinctive and desirable but cannot be reproduced by their synthetic but more lightfast replacements. You can still use these colors if you take advantage of the technology of prints.  Giclee prints of original paintings can be as marketable as the originals and they have the added advantage of being lightfast for 75 or 100 years.  (Depends on the inks used by the printers, by the way.  Handprint even advises you to test the inks used and that is what I call being thorough).  That way, you need not sell the original if you have fear that it may fade.  The original can be kept under archival storage.  Protected and hidden from light, they will not be subject to the same fading.  By doing the test yourself, you can better advise your clients on how to care for particular paintings.  You will know also when it is reasonable to give a discount on your painting price so your client can better afford the UV filtering glass that would prolong the life of your painting that used not so lightfast colors.  You will be able to suggest appropriate lighting options for the painting considering how UV light affects it, suggest areas in the client's house that would not subject the painting to direct sun exposure, etc. By doing the test, you are actually broadening or adding to your options and lessening your liabilities.

Follow the link below to go to's lightfastness test.'s doing your own lightfastness test

Some changes and observations regarding the lightfastness test I did.
I don't have access to some of the materials like the blue wool scale.  But I did inspect the swatches regularly and made notes and noted the hours.  I was counting only the hours spent under full sun and not the hours the test swatches were out on cloudy skies.  There is no way you can convert the hours to predicted days or years your work would remain lightfast though but you sort of get an idea which colors will have fading and in what sequence. Gives you an idea which colors to avoid or use with caution.  I also prepared double swatches.  One set was subjected to full sun exposure which I posted a picture of earlier.  The other I set up inside the house on a wall where they get part sunlight through the windows for certain hours of the day.  Conditions a painting might get normally subjected to in a client's home.  Started at the same time. So far, there was no fading for the artist grade colors left inside the house even though they were exposed to direct and indirect sunlight that enters through the windows and also exposed to the electrical lights inside our home.  A very promising sign that investing in artist grade watercolors is a good decision.

Just in case you are wondering what kind of results happen in a lightfastness test...

Photo shows the result after four months of exposing one of the framed test sheets to direct sunlight.  Just one brand of artist grade paints I have tried. I will not show the results for the other brands as our aim is not to do comparisons.  I deliberately made the resolution just big enough that you will be able to see the change but not enough to read the brand - to be fair to the companies and also so you would be motivated to do your own testing.  I have pictures of when I opened the frame several additional months later but will have to find the files first.  Laptop's hard disk conked out a year ago and I'm still reinstalling the backups and searching for missing document and picture files.

Can you see the changes in some of the colors?  If you see them, don't panic.  It does not mean that in four months' time, your painting that used the colors will fade.  I think your clients will have sense enough not to leave their paintings to the mercy of the sun as was done in the test.  But the test will sort of give you an idea which colors might fade in 5, 10, 15, 20 or so years later, that is if they were less carefully cared for. Protected paintings might not show any change at all.


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