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  • Ralph Mayer's book...ApproveRejectUn-ApproveSubscribeUn-Unsubscribe
    Question asked 2016-11-07 22:12:01 ... Most recent comment 2018-12-21 21:51:34
    Technical Art History Art Conservation Topics
    I am wondering about the reliability of the information in Ralph Mayer's book the Painters Handbook? If not reliable and even if it is I would appreciate any and all recommendations.

Answers and Comments

  • EditDeleteModerator AnswerI am slightly confused by your question. The most common Ralph Mayer book is The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques. The Painter's Handbook is the title of another seminal work on the subject by Mark David Gottsegen who was also the head of AMIEN and the spiritual forefather of this forum. I will quickly describe and critique both. Mayers's book is more encyclopedic, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to find the precise section that is most germane to the question one needs answering. It is full of really detailed information about the history, chemical components, working properties, interactions, and stability of a wealth of art materials. It does, however, contain materials and recommendations that today are considered less than optimal. There are sections on restoration that are inappropriate, archaic, and potentially dangerous. The 3rd edition in front of me has a recipe for using lead white oil paint to marouflage (glue a canvas mural to a wall). This is something that makes contemporary conservators cringe. Conserving these murals when they fail is very difficult (as the adhesive is both irreversible and prone to eventual failure) and hazardous. Conservators need to do these treatments in sequestered rooms with HEPA vac extraction, in hazmat suits, and with substantial safety equipment. He also has recipes for making restoration fill materials from whiting and linseed oil which were ill advised even when he wrote the manual. The book also contains other inappropriate restoration practices that have likely contributed to a good deal of DIY damage to paintings . Mayer also suggests materials that are no longer approved for permanent artwork. His glazing mediums and retouch varnish recipes contain a high proportion of soft resin, which are now known to create paint films which are sensitive to the solvents required in future conservation treatments. The book also contains a good deal of Mayer's own biases that are stated as scientific fact. On the other hand, The Artist's Handbook is a seminal work that contains much of interest and is filled will important information that is not available anywhere else. It is, however, outdated in some of the particulars. Gottsegen's book is shorter but works far better as a concise handbook that is easy to reference. The materials is mostly up to date, although neither bookcmention the dangers of zinc white in oil paint as this discovery is relatively recent. I have found few errors in The Painters handbook and recommend it to my students. It contains less detailed information than Mayer's but is a far more useful manual. Really a painter interested in materials and techniques should own both books but realize that conservation science and technical art history continue to unearth discoveries that will make all manuals outdated eventually. Feel free to restate your question if I misunderstood your main point.
    Baade, Brian
    2016-11-08 12:13:43
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser CommentThank you Brian that helped. I will buy the painters handbook.
    2016-11-10 09:22:58
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    A lot of useful information in this book if you are interested in the technical aspects of painting but the author is certainly no teacher. When I tried to find out how to prepare a plywood panel for archival oil painting I nearly lost the will to live and in the end decided to revert to stretcher bars and canvas. No doubt the information is all in there, but the author seems incapable of describing anything in simple terms or structures his explanations properly. His other book The Painter’s craft is more useful in practical terms. I was reluctant to buy this because it doesn't seem to be available on kindle and it seemed a little pricey. But a course that I was doing listed it as required reading. So I bought it. It is a hefty volume and having read nearly 200 pages so far, I can see why it would be required reading for artists. It is full of comprehensive and essential information that I wouldn't expect to find elsewhere. It has been referred to as 'The Bible for artists'. I think rightly so.

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    2018-09-21 04:36:31
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    I think Brian's assessment of Mayer's book is accurate, however I can't agree with Gotsegen's.
    Compared to Mayer's book, Gotsegen's is very light on material. I borrowed it from a library and read through it very quickly. Far too quickly.
    It was too long ago to remember details, but I remember thinking there were unquantified opinions, some contradictions and some important ommissions.
    (The problems with zinc being one of them.)
    However, even though I found it simple, it is a sound book and I can recommend it.​

    I would love a revised and corrected version of Mayer's book.
    I have the 5th edition, the latest, which was revised after Mayer's death, but even so, there is a considerable amount of very questionable information in it.

    If I were to only have one book, it would be Mayer's, but in conjunction with the latest information from sources such as MITRA, "Painting Best Practices" facebook group and "Traditional Oil Painting" facebook group.

    Ron Francis.

    2018-12-17 03:55:46
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    ​My apologies for misspelling 'Gottsegen'.

    2018-12-17 03:58:12
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    Ron Francis.

    I do think that the Gottsegen book is a far more useful manual, but do understand what you mean. The book is rather "simple" and direct. That is one of the reasons that it functions far better as a general painting manual. However, the first edition contained some info that I missed in the revised edition (for instance how to transform a tube of lead white oil paint into a proper lean lead white oil ground).

    The very comprehensiveness of Mayer's The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques  is also one of its downfalls. Her wrote on everything is an extremely authoritative manner. Some was based on science and testing and other parts on his obvious biases. The truth is that the more you have very strong opinions on, without conclusive evidence, the more you are going to be proved wrong.

    In some ways, especially as a recipe book,  I actually prefer The Materials and Techniques of Painting by Kurt Welte to these volumes. It is also outdated, also very opinionated, and based on the author's general tone, I do not think that I would have cared for him as a teacher, but I find it the most useful of the three as a book of recipes and techniques.

    As to the omission of the problems of zinc white and other contemporary issues, none of this was known when these three authors wrote, so it is unfair to criticize their omissions.  


    Brian Baade
    2018-12-18 13:11:34
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    Oh, I thought Mark was well aware of the problems with zinc.
    That would expain the ommision.
    Is my memory faulty, or was there much talk about zinc causing paint to become brittle at AMIEN before he died?

    Personally, I like the encylopedic nature of the Mayer book and find the index fairly easy to negotiate.

    I totally agree with what you said about trong opinions.
    I found them in both books, but I think it may be more difficult to discern opinion from fact in the Mayer book.

    Thanks Brian.

    Ron Francis.

    2018-12-21 17:14:41
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer


    People knew about the relative brittleness of zinc white oil paints for quite a while. Most beleived that this small degree of brittleness was offset by zinc white's more reactive nature in oil allowing for a much stronger paint film than titanium alone. This is also why many in the industry added a small amount of zinc white even to tubes solely labeled titanium white. It was the staple for tints. It is really very recent that we have begun to understand the massive issues caused by zinc carboxylate (soaps) formation and the speed at which these move through a paint film. Even today, only the most forward thinking manufacturers have begun to reformulate their paints based on this research.

    All of these painting handbooks were written before the depth of the zinc soap problem was understood. Of course, Mark's book was the most recent and likely the subject would have been included in subsequent editions if he had not passed away so young.

    Brian Baade
    2018-12-21 21:51:34
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    I'm not sure why but I presumed Mark's book (revised and expanded) was released after the Mecklenburg paper, but if my research is correct, it was published 6 years prior.​

    Ron Francis.

    2018-12-24 16:29:49

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