Tim Rees Artefex Ambassador
Aluminum composite material is a relatively new painting surface in the field of art materials. Those who have heard of it are often aware of its nature to be more rigid than stretched canvas and not prone to the same deteriorating effects of time like wood. In short, ACM is an incredibly long-lasting substrate, destined to last through the ages as our work is passed down from generation to generation, or is (hopefully) acquired by museums.
While all this is true, I have found the subject of using ACM akin to the same conversation we seem to have about vegetables or exercise: we all know it’s good for us, and that it will help keep us alive and healthy longer, but that conversation hasn’t exactly turned us into a society of vegetarian fitness buffs. When I have spoken to artists of the long-term qualities of ACM, I notice a similar mentality. I hear arguments such as:
“Most paintings of the past were executed on canvas or wood” (similar to the argument that “People of the past couldn’t always eat vegetables and they didn’t visit a gym”); or:
“My work probably won’t make it into a museum/nobody will want my painting anyway” (similar in effect to the argument that “I might be hit by a car and die tomorrow, so why change my diet today?”).
The very nature of humans makes it difficult to persuade us to consider long reaching ramifications, so I have little intention of doing that here. Instead, I’d like to bring to the table some of my experiences as a working artist who has had the curiosity (and sometimes necessity) of working on a huge range of painting surfaces and substrates, and highlight a variety of reasons why I continue to be drawn back to the ACM. Perhaps you have shared some of these frustrations, or perhaps they haven’t been considered. In any case, they should work to help inform your decision-making process.
Stretching. Most people I have met have had one issue or another at some point with stretching canvas, but another consideration is what happens immediately following. I once participated in a show that was in a very humid climate compared to my typical dry studio climate. Upon unpacking the crate, to our horror, we discovered that this drastic change in humidity (no doubt combined with the vibration associated with shipping), caused all of the paintings to be hanging loosely from the stretcher bars. While it might have been less noticeable on smaller works, with these large paintings we could see drooping rolls in the canvas. We spent the time unframing, re-stretching, and framing them before the show. Flash forward a month, and when I unpacked the paintings back in the studio, I noticed they had retightened, leaving the crease from the stretcher bar visible in some areas around the perimeter of the painting! Ultimately, this does not affect how good the painting is, but the occasional dimensional crease like this can be visually unappealing. Unfortunately, the only remaining solution now would be to re-stretch the painting on smaller bars, or to mount it to a less climate-reactive substrate such as ACM, and reframe the piece.
The tightening of the canvas after re-stretching caused the new canvas bar crease lines to become visible in some areas near the frame.
Another more common instance I encounter in the studio is the general slight loosening of stretched canvas over time. Not necessarily always problematic, it can produce unflattering effects if the canvas is not stored completely upright. Take, for example, one of my stretched lead-primed linen canvases. It was stored flat for about 6 months, and the result was that the weight of the heavier lead primer pushed the canvas down over the middle support bar, leaving a noticeable indentation. Because this canvas was primed several years ago, re-stretching could result in a cracked painting surface, so the best option would be to mount it to a panel, using a brayer to roll out any irregularities. This can happen to any canvas (even those stored upright), especially after being painted on. The more paint on the canvas, the heavier it gets, and the more likely it will be to sag.
The biggest downside to stretched canvas for me is the care that must be taken to continually ensure that nothing touches/potentially damages the front. I’m not like many artists I know who quietly toil away alone in a studio that is for the most part uneventful. I share a large studio with apprentices, and we are ALWAYS moving things around. I bring my 3-year-old to the studio with me, so sometimes Hot Wheels cars go flying. I have a big dog that makes the occasional visit to the studio with me, and he is NOT aware of where he swings his back end. I travel on location to open studios, to paint portraits in people’s homes, and to deliver paintings to galleries. The fact is, every time I do any of these things with stretched canvas around, I feel like I’m rolling a dice and hoping nothing gets ruined. Real life can be dangerous for a stretched canvas.
Wood panels. For a while I was a big fan of wood panels. Once sealed, they are aesthetically attractive, and they are usually inexpensive. The biggest challenge I have had with them is continual warping. Exposure to moisture and heat can cause this, and the only solution is to try to get the panel into a frame right away before it begins to warp. Waiting until after the panel has warped can run the risk of the paint film cracking. One of the reasons I found wood so appealing initially is its ability to occupy less room in the studio, so framing every painting right away negates the cost/space benefits.
Hardboard. A solution to the warping issue is hardboard (often called by the brand name Masonite). Generally speaking, hardboard is comprised of wood pulp that has been pressed into a board, usually using the wood’s natural glue to reconstitute its strength. There is no wood grain and it is dense, making it less likely to warp. Originally, I was concerned about possible additives (preservatives like formaldehyde or unknown acidic glues) that could eat away at paintings, which can often be found in hardware store hardboards. As I worked with art-grade hardboard, though, I found an even more disheartening characteristic: the ease with which the hardboard can break, flake, crumble, or swell. Even when sealed, an innocuous jolt to a corner can expose the wood pulp fibers, acting as a gateway for moisture to penetrate or for more stress to occur. I have many panels that have succumbed to this fate. The solution, of course, is to put these panels into a frame right away, again negating the cost/space benefit of hardboard. In less common circumstances, I have heard of fellow artists whose studios have fallen victim to a leak or flood, destroying numerous paintings completed on this substrate.
Gatorfoam board. Another newer and popular substrate is the PH-balanced Gatorfoam board, often called Gator board. Easy to cut, lightweight and firm, traveling with it is a snap. Unfortunately, it can also snap. Or dent. Or puncture. Corners have always been particularly problematic for me. Also, there is the possibility that something could fall on it. An apprentice of mine had just finished a beautifully executed master copy, and she had turned it facing a wall on a table to dry. Through some incredibly uncommon occurrence, overnight, the walls shook, and a framed painting fell off the wall, hitting the back of the Gator board. The board was punctured, and the painting was dented from the back. Weeks of hard work were then reduced to a restoration project. Ultimately, the convenience of the Gator board did not outweigh the damage it did. To top it off, Gator board, being a paper base, is more at risk to the damaging effects of water than wood or hardboard.
Every substrate has its appeal or convenience. To be honest, every once in a while I wander back to one of them for one reason or another. The ease of making, the spring of the canvas, the availability of a material. Almost every time I have done that, I remember why I started using ACM, and why I like it so much. It’s nice to be able to grab a panel and not have to worry. It’s nice to know it can store flat, save space, and be ready when I need it. It’s nice to know that if, for some reason, my easel or tripod gets bumped or a nail or screw fails and the painting falls to the ground, it will survive relatively unscathed.
In short, ACM has the best properties of all the other substrates (save the springiness), but it’s durable. Not just centuries-in-a-museum durable, but 3-year-old-toddler durable.