FAQ – People occasionally ask “Can I use house paint in art?”
Latex emulsion wall paint looks similar to acrylic so why not use it in paintings? And since matt house paint looks so much like an acrylic gesso primer, can it be used to prime canvas? Isn’t using house paint for preparing canvases a smart way to save money?
My first answer is, of course, you can use anything you want in art. Because your art making should come first, make it how you want to make it and if it ends up in a museum the conservators will figure out a way to take care of it. But then again will house paint give you the surface you want to paint on? If you are selling it your collector might want assurances that their investment is made with artist-quality materials? Is it a false economy?
I think what they are asking is if the cheaper house paint will work the same as artist primer – and unfortunately the answer is no. Here are some reasons why.
The life expectancy of house paint
Emulsion paint (called latex paint in the USA, its full name is latex emulsion paint) is always sloughing off. You may have noticed extra dust on your carpet near the walls. Modern, high-quality, durable wall paint applied well with proper surface preparation can last five or even ten years. Humidity affects this a lot and bathrooms often start peeling sooner. And even good whites will yellow in patches, over time. Exterior house paint is thicker and a bit more flexible but has a life expectancy of only about ten years. The last time I gave my wall a good wipe the sponge came away with white on it, so it seems pretty impermanent and just generally not a good support for a painter’s hard work.
Creating a painting that lasts
The priming of the canvas or board is the foundation of the work, and it is important to get it right. If you would like to construct a sound, durable painting you will want your primer/gesso to be flexible with movement and temperature changes. If using house paint as gesso you will have problems particularly during temperature changes or if your work is stored without humidity control.
They say that Jackson Pollock was a frequent user of house paints and some of his paintings are not lasting very well, in spite of the very high-end treatment they receive. Also household emulsion isn’t designed to prevent oil penetrating the canvas, so I doubt if it will work safely for oil painting.
Some examples of the instability and inflexibilty of house paint
I took this photo of the wall in my flat. After less than five years the emulsion wall paint started cracking in many places. This is from an interior wall of our flat. And our building flexes and moves a lot less than a springy stretched canvas does. Emulsion house paint doesn’t make a stable foundation for a painting.
Primer/gesso for fine art painting is designed to have the right amount of
1. absorbency for painting on
3. to be opaque white for canvas coverage
Household paint is only designed with opacity (maybe) in mind.
There is also a big difference between low-quality primers and good ones. I have heard of cheap primers flaking, bubbling and crazing. A cheap gesso can also be unpleasantly slick to paint on or become gooey when wetted.
Not all art is about permanence. If you are making work that you don’t intend to last you can paint with anything on anything. If you sell your work though, you will probably want to let the buyer know if you used materials that will fade or flake so that they know that what they are buying won’t have a long life.
This popular post was given a refreshing update on 4th August 2018.
Click on the underlined link to go to the Primers Department on the Jackson’s Art Supplies website. Postage on orders shipped standard to mainland UK addresses is free for orders of £39.