A project of the Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative

Project Objectives
The Outdoor Painted Surfaces project, part of the GCI's research on the conservation of modern and contemporary art materials, will aim to improve significantly conservators' understanding of the paints used for twentieth- and twenty-first-century outdoor painted works of art and to establish procedures that could be employed to improve their preservation.

detail of mural

Such knowledge is badly needed by conservators so that they can evaluate more systematically the behavior and relative stabilities of different paint types and therefore be better equipped to choose more effective conservation strategies. It will also assist in distinguishing between original paint layers and subsequent repainting and in developing more effective coatings for protection against two of the main causes of deterioration: ultra-violet (UV) radiation from the sun and graffiti.

Initially, the primary objectives of this project are:

  • gathering information on the main classes of paint being used by artists, fabricators, and conservators on outdoor artwork, both sculpture and murals;
  • developing methods of analysis to distinguish these paints, in particular the industrial enamel paints used on sculpture; surveying a number of collections of outdoor sculpture and murals to assess the most common aging effects and deterioration processes in these paints;
  • assessing current coatings for both anti-graffiti and protective (e.g., UV-absorbing) purposes.

Three Brushstrokes - Lichtenstein

Project Overview
Painted surfaces are frequently encountered on outdoor modern and contemporary art, primarily on sculptures and murals. A wide range of painting materials have been used on these works, ranging from high-performance industrial paints intended for outdoor exposure, to standard artists' paints, which are not. Given the extreme weather conditions that outdoor works of art experience—very high light levels, ultraviolet radiation, ozone and other atmospheric pollutants, fluctuations in temperature with extremes of hot and cold, and rain, among others—it is not surprising that any paints used on these works degrade and deteriorate fairly rapidly. The outdoor environment also makes these works highly vulnerable to acts of vandalism such as scratching and graffiti.

Outdoor painted surfaces cannot be protected to the same degree as a painting or sculpture housed indoors where all of these factors can be better controlled. Nevertheless, conservation strategies for these works are still required. Current conservation approaches to outdoor painted works can be quite varied. For example, it is accepted practice that outdoor painted sculpture is repainted at regular intervals—often completely stripping all earlier coats of paint—to compensate for color fading or other signs of degradation and to make the work look closer to its original appearance. Murals however, are usually conserved in a more traditional approach that places greater value on original paint material.

detail of wall mural

The importance of outdoor sculpture and murals should not be underestimated: Some of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, including Alexander Calder, Nikki de Saint Phalle, Mark di Suvero, Jean Dubuffet, and Roy Lichtenstein produced painted sculpture intended for installation in outdoor settings. Although contemporary muralists are typically not as well known, their work is viewed by millions of people each day. Los Angeles alone is home to over two and a half thousand contemporary outdoor public murals which have transformed many of its walls, bridges, and even freeway abutments into colorful galleries that reflect the city's culture, history, and identity.

This project is part of the GCI's Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative, which takes a broad approach to the needs of this area of conservation, including a range of scientific research projects but also a number of conferences, events, and meetings that are intended to promote discussion of these issues and to help disseminate information.

Case Study: Roy Lichtenstein's Outdoor Painted Sculpture Three Brushtrokes (1984): Anaysis of Paint Structure and Composition (10pp., PDF, 1.5MB)

Last updated: August 2011