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William Whitaker & ABS

by Miles Mathis

by William Whitaker

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some of Whitaker's recommendations

I discovered something so shocking yesterday that it took me many hours to wrap my head around it.  I don’t spend much time on forums, so I am way out of the loop.  But a student asked me to come onto a forum she had started herself and I spent a few hours posting. 

What I discovered is that several fairly well-known realists were painting directly on plastic, and what is more, sanding the plastic before they started.  Turns out this was done upon the recommendation of William Whitaker.   I did a search on “William Whitaker ABS” and discovered a PortraitArtist forum post from March 2005 where he explicitly says that he paints on ABS with no ground, and sands it before he starts.

Now, I have heard strange recommendations from famous artists before, and from Whitaker before.  For instance, he recommends Maroger medium, which everyone knows or should know is non-archival.   A dab here and there probably won’t destroy a painting, but Whitaker recommends a 25% solution: that is, 25% medium and 75% paint.  You should never use that much of any medium, but especially not Maroger.  He and his students apparently use it for gloss.  They can’t stand to see their paintings looking sunken in before they apply the final varnish.  But with this much Maroger, they are basically substituting it for the final varnish.  Some of them brag that they don’t need a final varnish, but it is nothing to brag about.  Paint that is that oily and masticky (Maroger contains mastic varnish) will crack very badly and probably very soon.  It will also darken a lot.  This is not just my opinion.   It is backed up by a lot of research and all conservators worth their salt agree with me.  All artists who have done their research agree with me.  It is not just Maroger that is dangerous—though it is especially dangerous.  All mediums used in that amount are bad news. 

I have also seen Whitaker recommending wet-sanding an oil painting, before glazing.  And, yes, by “wet” he means water.  Also a big no-no, as any conservator will tell you.   I have done a good deal of copying in museums, and the reason they don’t allow water-based paints in copywork is that water is a great danger to oil paintings.  Oil and water don’t mix, and this is not just true on the stove.  Water on an oil painting, either from the front or the back, can cause lots of problems, including buckling and delamination.  

It would appear that Whitaker and his students are fussy to the extreme.  They want an absolutely smooth and flawless surface to paint on, and they want their finished paintings to be completely smooth, too, with no paint ridges, no embedded hairs, and no specks of dust or dirt.  They want the painting to look great at every stage (as Whitaker has said himself) and they can’t stand for any part of it to look sunken in even for a moment.   They can’t wait to apply the final varnish to take the gloss back up to original levels.  The painting must looked varnished even when it isn’t.  

In some cases this would just be called finicky, but when it begins to affect the health of the painting and of the artist, it is a pathology.  The fussiness of Whitaker and his students has reached that stage, and someone must tell them that they are killing themselves and their paintings.  No one else is doing it, so, as usual, it looks like it is up to me.

Let me begin by saying that I have a nearly infinite tolerance for and appreciation of varying artistic styles.  I admire tight painting just as I admire loose painting.  I like both Ingres and Delacroix.  I also like Courbet.  I like Whistler, Sargent, Bouguereau, and Munch, all at the same time.  So this is not some sort of turf war.   I also don’t insist on certain materials.  I make recommendations to my students, but if they prefer titanium white to lead white, for instance, or prefer panels to canvas, it doesn’t bother me at all.  If they like bright colors, fine.  If they like to paint flowers or chickens or toy soldiers instead of people, fine.  That is their artistic call.  But when modern masters are telling people to paint directly on plastic, it is no longer proper to keep silent.  When these masters are telling them to sand plastic, with no mention of respirators, it is no longer proper to keep silent. 

If it were just the paintings that were in danger, I might hold my tongue.  Lots of bad advice gets passed around in these forums, and it is not my responsibility to answer all of it.  People have a right to give bad advice and to accept it.  These people will chase their tails to the end of time without needing or asking for my opinion of the wisdom in it.  But in sanding plastic, Whitaker has crossed a very dangerous line.  I am sure he doesn’t realize it, but he is endangering his own health and the health of his students.  Nowhere does he say that these students need to use protective clothing, goggles, and respirators if they plan to sand ABS, but that is the fact.  All three ingredients in ABS are toxic and carcinogenic.  Here is a quote from the internet*:

Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS) is used as a hard plastic in many applications like pipes, car bumpers and toys (hard building blocks).   ABS uses a number of hazardous chemicals. These include butadiene and styrene (see above) and acrylonitrile.  Acrylonitrile is highly toxic and readily absorbed by humans by inhalation and directly through the skin. Both the liquid and its vapor are highly toxic. Acrylonitrile is classified as a probable human carcinogen as are styrene and butadiene.

And this**:

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is not chlorinated, but like PVC it has highly hazardous manufacturing intermediates, including carcinogens, and is difficult to recycle. It is considered only marginally better than PVC environmentally.

Now, this is not the place to get into it, but what sort of people would even consider making children’s toys by joining together three different toxic substances?  It is sort of like making pacifiers out of arsenic, strychnine, and anthrax, and then saying that because the compound is not immediately lethal there is no problem.  But we make dental fillings out of mercury and water mains out of other poisons, so it is already clear what sort of people we are.  The question here is, do you want to be that sort of person while you are painting?—since you do have some choice about what support you buy to paint on.   

You should never sand or burn any plastics, but ABS is near the top of the pyramid of dangerous plastics, exceeded only by the chlorinated plastics like PVC.  Once again, this is not just my opinion, it is the opinion of the manufacturer of ABS.  These plastics were not made to be sanded by artists, and sanding is beyond the intended and recommended use of ABS and all other plastics.   Any sanding would have to be done by professionals in a controlled industrial environment, with full protective clothing and semi-annual visits from OSHA.  

In fact, sanding plastic is more dangerous to the artist than sanding lead, in my opinion.  Most artists know that if you are sanding lead you should take all reasonable precautions.  You should wear a mask, goggles, avoid breathing any dust, and wash any exposed skin immediately afterwards.  You should also work outside and hose down the working area afterwards.  You should sand as little as necessary.

But sanding lead only creates toxic dust.  It doesn’t create toxic fumes.   Sanding ABS will create both, and the fumes are probably worse than the dust.  Sanding heats up the surface of the plastic, and is basically equivalent to a very low burn.  But you don’t even need to heat plastic to high temperatures to make it release fumes.   All plastics release fumes at room temperature; that is why they smell bad.  You are smelling the fumes.  These fumes are toxic.  ABS fumes contain styrene, which is a carcinogen.  The manufacturers list 70oC as the heat threshold for ABS, which is not very hot.  An increase in styrene gas will be emitted at temperatures below that, when vigorous rubbing is also going on; and when burned ABS releases large amounts of toxic gasses.   I sand lead all the time, but I would never sand ABS. 

Another reason I would never sand ABS is that its hazards are not fully known.  We know what lead does and how to test for contamination.  I have had blood tests for lead (I tested lower than normal).   But the effects of ABS dust and fumes on the human body are not known.  Blood testing for ABS poisoning is  uncharted territory.  All we can assume is that ABS is not good for you.   Considering what we know about the constituent ingredients, ABS must be toxic.  

What we do know is that the manufacture of ABS is bad for the environment and dangerous for industrial workers (I assure you that workers do not manufacture or sand ABS without protective equipment, including breathing apparatus).  We also know that ABS is very difficult to recycle, does not biodegrade, and leaches toxins into landfills.  Plastics are not broken down by organisms in the soil.  Worms do not like plastics.  Sea creatures also do not like plastics.  Plastics of all kinds cause major problems in the oceans.   Everybody knows this that wants to know it. 

Considering all this, it makes no sense to recommend ABS for use as a support for oil paintings.    Wood works just as well and is completely non-toxic.  And guess what, ABS warps.  It absorbs moisture from the environment, outgasses, and warps, so there is absolutely no reason to use it.   Even limited to technical considerations, its minuses far outweigh its plusses. 

I have heard that many artists don’t like to use wood and real gesso, because the gesso sucks the oil out of the paint.  But this problem is easily fixable by other means, ones that don’t require using or sanding plastic.   Traditionally, artists have used a number of substances to seal the gesso, including shellac, varnish, and oil, or mixtures of all three.  Now, I don’t recommend any of these solutions.   They are preferable to painting on plastic, but I still don’t trust them.  I don’t think you want any of those substances as a substrate, no matter how thin it is.  What you want is a sealer with a minimum amount of oil and varnish.   Once again, I recommend white lead.  Rub a very thin layer of white lead into the gesso.  Use a very stiff lead, like Old Holland Cremnitz, which has only a small amount of cold-pressed oil in it.  It will be dry within hours.  You may need two or more coats to seal.   You can sand lead, but do it with all the precautions I listed above. 

Very lean white lead is the perfect ground for both canvas and panels.  If you are priming over real gesso like this, you need very little of it.  It is the perfect ground because it has just the right absorbency.  It does not suck the oil out of the paint, but it is not so slick that the paint won’t adhere to the ground.  I have tried expensive prepared canvases like Claessens and Artfix, and often a second stroke will pick up a first stroke, erasing it like a rag.  This is not good because it means the paint is not adhering to the ground.   This problem is caused by the fact that manufactured canvas cannot contain lead anymore. 

Some have replied that cutting down trees is also bad for the environment, but this question was decided long ago.  It is the old paper bags versus plastic bags argument, and plastic bags lost.  No one uses plastic bags for environmental reasons.  Stores use them for economic reasons: they are cheaper. Trees are both biodegradable and renewable.   There is nothing immoral about making products from wood or paper.  Mowing down rainforests and old-growth hardwoods and stuff like that is bad, but there is nothing wrong with harvesting trees.  Wasting huge amounts of paper like business and the government does is wrong.  But using paper responsibly is not wrong.  North America is not short of trees, and some of them can be used in a scrupulous manner, with no guilt.   Put simply, wood is a seventh-generation product and plastic is not. 

But even beyond environmental concerns and health concerns, painting directly onto plastic is just nuts.  Even if you don’t give a rat’s bazoo for the earth or for your health, you should care that your painting is not going to last.  Marvin Mattelson has chimed in on the ABS question here, and he is right.  There is absolutely no long-term data to indicate that an oil painting will properly adhere to ABS, and there is every reason to suppose that it won’t.  The first reason is the reason that Whitaker and his students have chosen it: it is slick and non-porous.  It doesn’t soak up the oil.  But it doesn’t soak up anything else, either.  There is no real bonding of the two layers.  You are relying strictly on the adhesive qualities of linseed oil, which are not terribly high.  The ABS has very little texture to help this equation.  Add to this the fact that ABS is dimensionally stable and the paint layer is not.  The paint layer is going to contract and expand, while the ABS sits there completely inert and motionless. 

Then, Whitaker recommends you take two layers that are poorly bonded to begin with, add water to them and start sanding again, over the top.  Madness. 

And don’t forget that his paint layer is 25% Maroger medium.  His glazing medium is likely to have a much much higher ratio of oil, oil that cannot be soaked up by his main layer since his main layer is already clogged with oil and varnish.  So you have oil on top of oil and varnish on top of plastic, and this whole layer has been watered and sanded.  These are the recommendations of a sought-after master.

I have just learned that my old nemesis Rob Howard recommends ABS.  No real surprise there.  I read on PortraitArtist that Rob’s son Max is selling the stuff, which may explain the recommendation.   My question is, when are artists going to wise up and quit taking material recommendations from salesmen?   I have no financial ties to anything I recommend.  I give advice purely as a service to the artworld.  I consider it an obligation.  I don’t even teach workshops.  In the past seven years I have had two students.  I have no personal product lines, no books I am trying to hawk, no videos, nothing.  My website is free, and all my articles are free and free to download and distribute.   If you want my advice, fine; if not, also fine, and you are not out a dime. 

I think the main reason I felt I must speak out on this issue is that it is not just salesmen doing the damage here.  Whitaker is a top realist, and, I am told, a really nice guy.  From his posts, I think that is probably true.  He comes off as very down-to-earth and likeable.  But he is tragically wrong on this one, and I cannot let it pass. 

Please do not sand plastic, for your own sake and the sake of those who have to breathe the air in your studio.  Do not paint on plastic, for the sake of those who like your work and would like to see it last more than a couple of decades.  I also recommend you avoid using plastic for all other applications, artistic and non-artistic, and I do this for the sake of the planet as a whole: for the worms who have to eat around this plastic, for the fish and turtles and whales in the sea who have to choke on this plastic, and for your grandchildren who will have to live next to huge landfills bursting with this toxic stuff—drinking water and breathing air tainted with it. 

I would like to close by pointing out once again how trade curses everything it touches. Your master is Whitaker or Howard. Mine remains Thoreau. I have long been aware that the colourman has been replaced by the plasticman, but I had not been aware of the extent of it. I knew that things were bad, but I never thought to see—in my own lifetime—top realists painting directly on plastic, and bragging of it in print. 

The salesmen have been at the artists for more than a century, pushing the new products.  It was already amazing in 1920 that the artists had accepted the new solutions—solutions for problems they did not have.  But now they have almost finalized the capitulation to the supplier.  They have been convinced that worse products are better products, and just in time.  The better products are obsolescent and soon will be obsolete.  Once the salesmen outlaw or marginalize these products into utter obscurity, they will not have to compete with them anymore.  The artist will have to paint on plastic with plastic paints, all purchased products.  He will be an utter slave to the market, a fish swimming in a little plastic bowl, unable to see beauty or even remember that it once existed.

The only reason that photoshop has not completely taken over realism is that these suppliers do not want to lose their captive audience.   With the upswing in realism has come an upswing in new products and an upswing in propaganda.  The artists’ forums have been infiltrated by the salesmen, and much of the advice given is tainted by trade.  Many (or most) of the so-called professional artists are just fronts for business, since they hardly ever sell a painting.  They make all their money from selling advice or products to other artists, and a large part of their income may come from kickbacks.  It is amazing to me that anyone ever accepts anything they say, it is often that transparent. 

And yet people do.  The fledgling artist is as credulous and gullible a consumer as yet been created.  He or she appears to be incapable of reading an old book, wielding a hammer or a spatula, or doing any research.  Research has become incredibly easy with the rise of the internet, but most of these people don’t appear to know how to do a websearch.    But the biggest problem is that these poor souls can’t tell a meaningful sentence from gibberish.  They are so poorly educated that they can’t make an informed decision, even given the facts. 

And so there is no hope for them.  They should put down the brush and read old books for two or three years.  That is the only possible solution.  If they are not natively dull, their minds may yet be formed into something besides mush.   As it is, these lemmings who rush to paint on plastic, squirt water on their oil paintings, sand them down to the nub, and swim all their colors in massive amounts of oil deserve the mess they create.  Perhaps we should be thankful their works are not archival.  The problem is, they aren’t biodegradable either.   Their paintings, like their souls, will rot into a halfway state of horror and then remain that way for eons, like Ahasuerus waiting for parousia.

[Postscript: I got several emails from William Whitaker in late 2007. He was very polite and friendly, and simply wanted to assure me that he was neither mad nor mistaken. He seemed to imply that he may have been misunderstood or misquoted, and that he may no longer recommend these things, if he ever did. I gave him the opportunity to respond right here, but so far he has not taken me up on that offer. If Mr. Whitaker no longer recommends these practices and supplies, then I let this article stand not against him, but only against them.]

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