Painting on Copper by David Williams MSc.

 

In the June 2009 edition of  ‘The Artist’ I was fascinated by an article on the work of Eloiza Mills, a recent graduate in Fine Art from the University of Aberystwyth, Wales. What drew my attention was the fact that many of Eloiza’s portraits were painted on a copper base. These works were distinguished by their subtleness of tone, fine detail and luminescence and this made me want to explore the possibility of painting on metal surfaces myself.

A literature search soon told me that copper and other metals were chosen by past masters, such as El Greco, Brueghel, Chardin and Rembrandt, as a support for painting some of their best pictures. Of course, during their times metal, such as copper, was in plentiful supply and, more importantly, cheap to buy. Today the supply and economics of using copper is more problematical; nevertheless, there are signs of resurgence in artists using this material, especially in America. Karina Keri-Matuszak of Atlanta and Kate Lehman of Brooklin are now recognised as leading exponents in painting on copper and it is to them that I have also turned for inspiration. 

 

Preparation seems to be a critical factor in painting on copper. The surface is smooth and offers very little purchase for oil paint. I have discovered that there are many pundits with ‘secret formulae’ who express conflicting views on what you should do. Fortunately, stripped of the mystique, some consistent threads of advice can be elicited. Most of this advice is really common sense, but it is useful to express it in the necessary stages you must go through:

1.    Abrade the surface of the copper plate with fine wire wool. I have personally found that the rough side of a washing-up sponge does the job adequately. Whatever you use, be sure to rub the surface in small, circular movements.

 2.    Wash the surface using ordinary soap and water.

 3.    Next you should clean the surface with rubbing alcohol and allow the fluid to evaporate, taking care not to finger the copper in the process. I have found that  it is useful to put the sheet inside a shallow plastic container to protect it from dust while it is drying

4.    An optional stage is to rub fresh garlic over the surface to improve adhesion. Perhaps this is one of the ‘secret’ formulae that is mentioned by some people. I have had an exchange of emails with Kate Lehman and she says that she no longer uses the garlic rub because it changes the colour of the copper, which she likes to partly expose in her work. I have found that I can achieve sufficient adhesion without the garlic providing that I paint in very thin layers

5.    The final stage is to seal the whole painting when it is dry with balsam medium. This is especially important if you are going to leave part of the copper exposed. Unfortunately I could not source balsam medium in the UK and I went to the length of getting it from Blue Ridge Art Materials in America. I understand that Michael Harding in the UK is now producing a Balsam-Resin Glaze

Some artists prefer to prime the copper surface. Eloiza Mills, for example, applies a thin coating of household metal primer and gesso, mixed with a little linseed oil. So far I have not used any primer, preferring to paint directly on the surface of the copper instead.

 

 Normal oil painting brushes are not really satisfactory; they just skim over the surface. I have been using soft watercolour brushes and these seem to work for me. Essentially, you have to paint in thin glazes because copper surfaces are not suitable for thick impasto work. Another limitation of working with copper is that, due to the weight and cost of the copper, you are almost invariably forced into painting on a small scale. I get my copper sheets from a local supplier who charges about £120 for a sheet measuring 48 inches by 24 inches (with no extra charge for machine-cutting it into 12 inch squares). I then strengthen the squares by gluing them to plywood backings.

 

 I am still experimenting with painting on copper and I would welcome any comments from others who have used metal surfaces in their own work. Also, do not hesitate to ask me any questions about the above notes; it would be good to get a discussion going.

References:

1. Copper as Canvas, Two Centuries of Masterpiece Paintings in Copper, 1575-1775

2. "An instinctive response" (The work of Eloiza Mills) by Oliver Lange. An article in 'The Artist", June 2009.

 

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