Other people have lawn furniture. Some have grills and swimming pools. You have art. Not just that, you have outdoor art that you made yourself.
So, it’s great. It’s an expression of your artistic skill and sensibility. If only it didn’t dissolve in the rain, blow away in the wind, fade in the sunlight or just generally get beaten up so it looks like – well, not so much the expression of talent and imagination it used to be.
Let’s look at some of the things you can do to preserve your work.
Choose Your Location Wisely
Where you put your outdoor artwork matters. It’s not just a case of the obvious “out of the rain/in the rain.” If you live in a cold weather zone, you need to account for the effects not only of snow and ice, but protracted periods where the mercury doesn’t reach above freezing level. If you live in a hot, humid climate, the issue may be that moisture is absorbed into whatever you make, and the natural processes that cause things – almost anything biodegradable – to dissolve are much faster than in a cooler climate.
If you live in a windy place, take the effect of frequent buffering from air movements into account – it’s not just a case of “my canvas project blew away.” Santa Fe artists are well aware of the springtime blasts of gritty dust that sandblast their outdoor works for days at a time each year.
My Texan friends tell me that all of the above applies to them, with the addition of hailstones the size of footballs. (I’m not sure I quite believe them, but everything’s bigger in Texas, apparently.)
So, what to do about the inconvenient fact that if we want to keep artwork – or anything, really – out of doors, we have to deal with the weather?
Use The Sheltered Side
Does your home have a ‘sheltered side’? Most have at least one, because weather doesn’t come from just one direction. Gardeners know that if a plant needs to be in ‘full sun’, it should be placed with a southern exposure. That’s where the sun is, when it’s at its height.
Sun intensity varies with locality, of course; if you live in a dry, hot climate it’s far more significant than a cool, cloudy one. So it’s critical in Tucson, not so much in Seattle.
Now, art projects don’t thrive in full sunlight. It fades them out quickly. So your sheltered side is likely to be on the north, facing away from the midday sun. But all sorts of things impact this – my own house is fairly open to the north, shaded by trees on the other sides.
Moreover it isn’t all about sun. I often make crafts on the porch which wraps around two sides of our 1905 era home. The west side of the house is a wind tunnel in the colder months, as air from the north funnels along it, blowing all my stuff onto the lawn; the front of the house is fine, and I can drag my work table ten feet to safety.
It’s not always necessary for your art to stand naked against the elements. If you have a porch, use it as a gallery. If you have an overhanging roof, accept it gladly as, at least, a way of stopping the rain and snow falling directly on your cherished work. It will help protect a mural considerably.
If you’re cunning, you can add features to protect your art. Build moveable or permanent screens.
You expect to bring your lawn furniture in out of bad weather, don’t you? Maybe it’s weatherized against summer rain, but nobody leaves their rattan sofa out through the winter months. You can do the same thing with your art. Delicate things come in when it rains. Others stay out through the season. But – unless it’s a giant rock or a rusted steel archway – you aren’t obliged to let it face January outdoors.
Those of us who paint for fun are familiar with many different kinds of paints. We know that watercolors are delicate and that oils take forever to dry, I was at a hardware store this week buying a gallon of household latex. The paint guy (all good hardware stores have a specialist ‘paint guy’) asked me not only what sort of finish I wanted (matt, eggshell/satin, gloss) but also ‘interior or exterior?’ What he sold me was for an indoors craft project rather than for a wall, so we settled on ‘interior, builder’s grade’.
Lowe’s have a great guide to exterior paints on their website. It discussed the choice of oil based paints (slower to dry, harder to clean up, a bit stinky – but very tough!) and acrylics (easier to use, a shade less protective). Gloss finishes are harder, but aren’t as easy to use for artistic – as opposed to ‘finish the hallway’ purposes.
The other thing to mention is that paint works best on top of a primer – a specially formulated kind of paint made to stick well to the surface, prevent moisture, and generally make sure that your top coat stays pristine.
If you want a paint job to last, protect it with a sealer. If you really want it to last, don’t use a hobby-grade spray varnish, but something that – say – a guy preparing his boat for a new season on the water might use! Sure, it’s thick and a bit smelly to use – but it’ll do the job for you.
Fine Woodworking carried out what they called a ‘torture test’ on several varnishes.
“To find out, we treated five wood species with five different types of outdoor finish, then let a rack of sample boards sit outside for a year in Oregon, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Connecticut. Each region subjected the samples to a unique set of climate conditions. In the end, we had a new insight on how outdoor finishes and different types of wood hold up to the elements.”
Alas, you have to be a member to read all the results BUT – the answer we really need is Epifanes marine varnish. That’s boat varnish. Get some.
One suggestion worth noting – especially if your art is going to be in a public place, is to use a protective anti-graffiti finish such as AGS Anti-Graffiti Coat.
Canvas – a case study
What about things that are just hard to weatherproof. How about canvas? The Vanguard website has some really handy pointers:
1. Do not use silicone-based canvas waterproofing.
Never attempt to use silicone-based canvas waterproofing on acrylic canvas. Silicone clashes with the original application.
2. Use a product with fluoropolymer.
When doing canvas waterproofing, it is best that you use a fluoropolymer-based substance. This type of canvas waterproofing is compatible with the acrylic canvas. Hence, it will result into a more durable and sturdy acrylic canvas.
3. Use a waterproof material that contains petroleum.
Petroleum-based materials have long been proven to be effective when doing a canvas waterproofing. They are very compatible with acrylic canvas.
Click through for the rest of their list.
Can You Protect Everything?
Lastly, let’s think of the art project least likely to stand up to adverse conditions. How about paper mache? Surely paper mache will just melt in the rain? Not necessarily.
- I would use a high-quality carpenter’s glue to stick the paper onto the sculpture, instead of using the usual flour-and-water paste. I would do this because flour is one of the favorite foods of fungi (yeast is a fungus, and you know what happens when you add yeast to bread dough). Flour is also a favorite food for animals, like mice, raccoons, and golden retrievers. The varnish might mask the odor of the flour, but I would play it safe and use the glue instead.
- I would keep the bottom of the sculpture far enough above the ground to prevent splashback from rain or sprinklers from covering the sculpture with a thin film of mud. Soil microbes, especially fungi, are incredibly strong, and could eat their way into the sculpture and cause it to rot. Some fungi is strong enough to work it’s way into concrete and even rocks, so a paper mache sculpture would be a piece of cake for them. To prevent the bottom from getting wet, the sculpture could be placed on top of a rounded rock that allows water to drain away. I don’t know exactly how a larger sculpture (a hippo, for instance) would be protected, but there must be a way to do it.
- As Jackie suggested, I would re-apply the marine varnish* at least once a year.
- I would make sure the sculpture is heavy enough to keep the wind from blowing it away.
So, while I suspect that most of us will not be trying to preserve the most lightweight of our art creations outdoors, at least we know what will give our treasures a fighting chance.
And if you don’t want to try any of these techniques, just get an old tractor and set it outside to rust. Sand it every year or so. Within a decade, people will be admiring you as a practitioner of rust art!