Sticky, difficult and hazardous. The days when enamel paints were just used to coat ships and bridges are long gone; in my hands I can do almost anything with them.
Ingredients and behaviours
My beloved enamel paints are perhaps the most important component of my entire arsenal of materials.
I have them specially made for me and it’s taken over seven years of trial and error to get a recipe that allows me to create the pieces that you see on the site.
During that time I have experimented with additives (including liquid latex, stabilizers and curing extenders). The end result is a paint that I can have complete faith in but will also be flexible enough for me to add compounds to to allow me to push their capabilities even further.
Exactly what goes into them is a closely guarded secret. What I can tell you though is that they are oil based (the base resin is a Benzine derivative), not water based and contain a number of hazardous chemicals, which is why I wear a breathing mask when I paint.
If you’re looking to do the same thing I would recommend oil based any day but be very careful on what’s inside them. It’s difficult to avoid the hazardous chemicals if you want a really good paint. Water-based enamels suck. I mean really suck!
Health and safety considerations
With using a material like this I need to be mindful of my own safety, therefore to minimize exposure (to direct and incumbent particles) I run an industrial air extractor and operate under a negative pressure environment. I wear a full face breathing mask too and I change filters after each session.
I also wear latex gloves. These are critical to avoid contact with the skin. Skin and enamel paints are NOT a good combination. With all the various additives that go into the basic recipe it’s no wonder the paint burns through
my gloves in about six minutes. I get through them by the box.
My enamel paints begin the curing process upon contact with air. As the paints are exposed to oxygen they produce hydrocarbons (in the form of vapour) and are released into the air. In an effort to keep these harmful vapours managed I paint inside a sealed containment pod which has been specifically commissioned and designed to fit into my paint room.
It’s an equivalent specification to those used in the nuclear waste industry. I go to extraordinary lengths before I can even open a can of paint.
Normal air-drying cure time is around 96 hours for standard coats but thicker applications can take anything from six weeks to six months to cure fully. I keep a constant airflow over the surface of the canvases to help speed up the curing process. Once cured they are resistant to heat up to 400°C and can be wiped clean with kitchen cleaner and a damp cloth.
Art meets chemistry
Nothing new here; Mother Nature has been at it for billions of years.
I often dream up new ideas but then have to figure out how to get those translated in to something tangible.
In order to fully realise the potential of my enamel paints I have to understand them intimately; by this I mean their chemical make-up, behavioral characteristics and component structure.
It’s at this point I can experiment with them to learn how to achieve something I see in my head.
Being part alchemist is quite exciting, especially as I only have a very limited knowledge of chemistry. There’s no doubt I would be horrified if I actually knew what I was doing but I haven’t set fire to anything recently and am still breathing so that’s a plus as far as I’m concerned.
I do get a buzz from seeing something form from just an idea.
Pigment is an important thing as it will dictate the colour and finish of the paint when it’s cured. You may like to know that I have a number of colours made just for me. It’s good to be able to work with lots of different companies to help me develop my paints. Metallic finishes are something I have been working a lot on recently.
One small thing you may be interested in is my experimentation with a UV laser. I am using an experimental technique for ‘light-curing’ to alter the chemical state of the paint by use of short bursts of UV.
The effect is to subject a very thin layer of paint (typically in the region of 180 – 270nm) to a highly concentrated burst of UV.
The laser alters the structure of the pigment to give an array of different colours WITHOUT actually using those colour pigments in the painting. Great fun. In time I may be able to ‘zap’ out other tones.
None of this is really viable but it’s fun to try once you can get hold of the right kit. If nothing else it helps dry the paints a bit quicker.
I have 19 chemical compounds I can add to the paints to create different properties and finishes. Three of these are mineral-based thinning agents, two are latex derivatives, four are based on a chemical similar to caustic soda, three are retarders, two are extenders, one is a gloss enhancer, one is a dispersant, and the remaining three I dare not talk about.
I never gloss or varnish my work because the finished effects are always built into the paint mixes. I can make anything matt, semi-sheen or gloss – sometimes all on the same painting.
I prefer to do this because it won’t be prone to yellowing (as many varnishes are) and it’s one less job to do.
In 2018 I used 1135 litres of paint; it’s a fair amount to use but then I throw much away because my experiments and my application techniques go wrong. In fact I throw away at least half of everything I do because I feel it’s not right or that it’s good enough to put my name to.
Adding things to my paint allows me to push the limits of what they can do. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do make some colossal fuck-ups on a regular basis but through practice comes learning and we all know what that can do.
The paints are useless if you haven’t got the imagination to use them. Science is wasted if you do nothing with it. Go and question the world and you’ll be amazed at the answers it provides.