Is oil painting a dying art?

My husband laughs immoderately when I try to discuss archival issues about painting media, and tells me that I am pursuing a dying art. He is a violinist, but also a techno-nerd; definitely the first on our block to try 3d printing. In music he thinks he is seeing the dying of classical music as a living tradition, and he gives me some good reasons to think this may soon happen with physical paint as we know it. I spent most of my work life with digital art, then returned to physical media at retirement. One of the oddest cognitive effects of this transition is the automatic reach for the undo button, with the weird effect of a missing limb. I laughed and it finally faded, but the truth is that the future of painting probably includes the undo button much more than my tubes of paint.  

I spent last night on one of those obsessive internet hunts, reading about the conservation of old oil paintings. This is best done in extreme moderation (not my strength), because it can paralyze rather than energize painting. In five words, oil painting is a minefield. Old masters had a tradition that seems to have survived amazingly well… if relentlessly maintained by intelligent and careful conservators. Rembrandt, often pointed to as a gold standard for excellent methods that survived well, made paintings that now have big swathes of ugly white efflorescence in shadow areas, probably from lead in the underpainting that formed lead soaps and migrated to the surface to turn into rock. Or his extensive use of chalks is revealed in whitish areas when glazes become transparent or fade. (Here’s a conservators’  eye-opening report. )

Internet art forums are full of the desire to paint archivally, and equally full of contradictory advice about how to do it.  Old master techniques were lost with the end of the guild systems and the rise of manufactured art products, long before 20th century art sent academic art institutes on a tailspin to abandon whatever knowledge they retained. On optimistic days I think that old methods are being renewed by teachers like Tad Spurgeon, and we could have a resurgence of sound oil painting. On realistic days I think most of us should really relax about this issue, because we would be delighted to sell our artwork for anywhere under $1000, the cost of an unpleasant car repair. Most of our art sells for minimum wage or less, and it hardly seems fair to ask that it last 500 years when a burger lasts 15 minutes. Still, most people pursuing an art wish to learn its craft. It’s oil painting’s misfortune that it requires a high knowledge of craft, but functions now in the shadow of a wholesale denial that craft matters. Will we recover that craft in time to make a difference in its future? If you take a long hard look at 3d printing and scanning, and think about what they mean, it’s not clear that the answer is yes.

Here are my Nostradamus predictions for the art world:

Within 25-100 years, painting will see a revolution using physical media manipulated electronically. This will come out of material science, 3d printing and nanotechnology in manufacturing industries. One thought is that artists may start by using something like Wacom tablets with physical substances on top, manipulated electronically with wands and computer input. The electronic controls will eventually include color changes, textures, and the ability to make something solid or fluid at will.  Painting, sculpture, music and animation will merge, since the materials will be changeable, limited in strength only by material science, and programmable over time. Perhaps these artworks will be retained only as digital files to be created at will by anyone with the information.  Perhaps there will be no need for a physical medium at all during design; works could be created with virtual projections, then brought into existence and dissolved at will.  My imagination no doubt pales compared to the future.

So what happens to physical objects like oil paintings?

For a long time, they may  be considered utterly quaint and will end up in landfills by the cartload. The huge possibilities of the new media will simply overwhelm any desire for them. Someone with a fondness for a painting will have it 3d scanned and made into a file, with the original tossed as inevitable problems emerge.  Museums will retain their collections, and the uber-wealthy will artificially maintain the value of their paintings (money being what they are good at), but for a long time the ground will disappear from under old painting methods. At some point, the value of unique objects that no one wants to take the time to make may reassert itself, and a niche market could reappear. Which brings me to the second possibility.

The value of the unique object may be the wild card in this future. The wealthy may greatly prize something that is unique in all the world, keeping traditional painting alive to some degree, for awhile. Philip K. Dick displayed his usual prescience with this topic, suggesting that handmade objects could in some situations become almost fantastically valuable. It is possible that their value will lie in their impermanence, though, not their ability to survive.  Objects that take on this patina will NOT be the amateur paintings the vast majority of us are producing; expect the landfill in your children’s lifetimes. :)  If you care, scan your paintings with the best available technology, and count on the NSA to keep your legacy for the ages.  Oh, and paint in pure acrylic on acrylic-primed polyester; it may last 1000 years in a landfill. (See a comparison of oil and acrylic longevity.)

So, what does this mean for someone who loves painting? Never doubt this: the reason to paint is irrefutable and immense: we create for the love of it.  If every painting in existence was burned, it would still have been worth it. The value is in the process. Those amazing future artists with their floating anti-grav events would be fully recognizable to us as kindred spirits, and would never get there without us.