LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
1 MASONITE PANELS
I am writing about the short communication by Alexander W. Katlan, “Early Wood-Fiber Panels: Masonite, Hardboard, and Lower-Density Boards” (JAIC 33(1994):301–6). My perspectives are those of a graduate chemical engineer, an ongoing student of materials science, and an experienced oil and acrylic painter. My information comes from published materials science and wood products research, as well as extensive prior hands-on experience with Masonite and many other painting supports.
Ten years ago I often painted on Masonite panels. I painted perhaps 50 works on such panels, over acrylic gesso, as opposed to less permanent, potentially brittle grounds that predate modern science and materials literacy. Even with great care, I encountered recurring problems of warpage and corner damage. Gesso application on all six sides was no solution. Uneven application of gesso and the very application of varying paint layers led to uneven stresses. Within a given work, paint may be applied very thinly in some areas, and with impasto gusto in others. One area of a painting may need several layers and glazes, while another is little more than an initial wash. There would be an element of the absurd in attempting to duplicate in reverse gesso the back side of a panel as a stress-mirror of the front.
Dissatisfaction with the long, and short-range performances of Masonite, wood, linen, and cotton led me several years ago to undertake continuing research into more permanent, technologically sound supports. This is standard practice among materials scientists and engineers who are more amused than influenced by the materials practices of Old Masters. By contrast most artists and conservators lack the scientific background needed to challenge traditional materials and techniques with confidence. Recently I reviewed the conservation literature here and abroad on the subject of painting supports. I also studied materials science literature on modern thermoplastic polymer sheets and textiles, metallurgical texts and journals, and the ongoing patent publications for new compositions and materials combinations. A preliminary analysis of my findings, directed to painters, “New Painting Surfaces for a New Age,” appears in American Artist, February 1995, 52–55.
The Katlan communication refers to “advantages” of Masonite as “not swelling or shrinking like a panel” and “not as sensitive to climatic changes as wood.” Both personal experience and published figures suggest that such optimism toward Masonite is both unwarranted and outdated by decades. A standard university text, Mechanics of Wood and Wood Composites (J. Bodig, and B. A. Jayne, Malabar, Fla.: Krieger Publishing Co. 1993), tabulates various physical properties of fiberboards and shows that water absorption may be as high as 30% in humid conditions.
In a corroborating home or laboratory test, 25 sq. in. samples of Masonite immersed in warm water will show swelling and warping when treated and when sealed and sized with various materials, including rabbit skin glue, oil, and acrylic polymer.
What is more important to the artist and future conservators is that many more modern support materials are available that are vastly superior to the wood and plant-based products now used. The wisdom of conserving a Thomas Moran over a new support of aluminum skin with polymer honeycomb interior should be applied to advocating that artists paint on more permanent supports in the first instance. Cotton and linen sails, and wooden boats, are demonstrably obsolete, and have been so for decades. Much of the art materials field is dwelling in a 17th-century time warp. An afternoon in a science library followed by a visit to a plastics and metal alloy distributor is a much needed experience that could change the entire direction of art making and conservation. If only for the sake of 23d-century archaeologists, we should be as attentive to making good permanent art today as we are to conserving that which was badly made centuries ago. If Leonardo had painted the Last Supper on an ABS or aluminum honeycomb panel, it would now be in the Louvre, courtesy of Napoleon!Rhett RoyLucas2568 S. Hemlock, General Delivery Cannon Beach, Oreg. 97110
The focus of my article was the factual history and origins of wood fiber and Masonite boards and was not a recommendation to modern artists. I welcome and look forward to the forthcoming book by Mr. Lucas entitled Fine Art for the Next Millennium: A New Renaissance in Paintings and Painting Supports with documentation.Alexander W.Katlan56-38 Main Street, Flushing, N. Y. 11355