Caring for artworks made entirely of paint

Caring for artworks made entirely of paint

How do you care for artworks that are made entirely of paint? Conservator Paintings Linda Waters explains.

There are two fascinating art works in the exhibition Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa made entirely from paint – Everything in its right place (Arrangement for seventeen colour groups 17/51), and For future reference. Both are by Christchurch-based artist Helen Calder, whose practice has evolved from using paint on various support materials to using paint by itself. Strictly speaking, it is not paint totally by itself, however the support takes the form of steel pins or rails on which the paint hangs, free of the wall – quite a different relationship to the paint than it sitting on a canvas.

Strips of variously coloured paint hang from pins on the wall
Helen Calder, Everything in its right place (Arrangement for seventeen colour groups, 17/51), 2011-2017, acrylic paint, stainless steel. Te Papa (2018-0009-1/AA to BY)
Pieces of paint hang over rails like towels
Helen Calder, For future reference, 2018, acrylic paint, steel, enamel paint. Te Papa (2018-0008-1)

I was lucky to work with Helen to install these pieces, and enjoyed talking to her about the intricacies and technicalities of the paintings, so I can share some detail about her working process.

These two works are so beautiful and intriguing that many people want to touch them – however this is really detrimental to the artwork. I’ll explain later. But for now, some details…

Artist Helen Calder during installation of Everything in its right place (Arrangement for seventeen colour groups, 17/51). Photo by Linda Waters. Te Papa

Painting without canvas

The evolution of Helen’s work using paint alone was the result of the happy accident of seeing some excess paint that had run from a canvas and dried on the table top overnight. This led her to experiment to create paintings without a support – no mean feat, as you need to understand the technicalities and behavior of paint in order to use it without a substrate to support it!

Helen works with the highest quality artists’ acrylic paint (by Golden Paints) on a covered table top to produce long paint skins – a process she describes as physical, almost like a dance. And expensive! She gauges when each skin is dry enough to hang vertically (the skins have a hanging hole which is reinforced with muslin) and then there’s a sort of curing time. The strips are hung for a period to assess any changes and then arranged into a composition. The whole process takes a few months.

Close up of the pieces of paint
The back of a paint skin showing muslin reinforcing and Helen’s numbering system. Photo by Linda Waters. Te Papa

The nine hanging sheets of paint in For future reference are made in a similar way to the paint skins, but from two types of acrylic paint – Golden Paints artists’ acrylic plus Resene Enamacryl, the latter chosen for its flexibility to ‘support’ the coloured layers. The coloured layers are delicate and nuanced, and arise from Helen’s experience and skill in manipulating the paint.

A detail of the marbled surface of one sheet in For future reference. Photo by Linda Waters. Te Papa
A stipple-like pattern on the surface of a sheet in For future reference. Photo by Linda Waters. Te Papa


So, back to the issue of touching. Acrylic paint is actually very susceptible to the acids and oils in our skin. They eat into the surface of the paint over time, or darken to become visible on what is otherwise an uninterrupted field of colour. Both are disfiguring and irreversible, which is why we wear gloves to handle paintings and other objects.

It might be possible to clean the dark soiling from some types of acrylic paint, but the etching is permanent. Dents and scratches can also be permanent, as the paint stays ‘soft’ due to the long molecules that make up its structure. This is especially so for the thick unsupported paint in these skins. The paint skins also conform to any irregularities in the surface on which they are lying because  of their weight, combined with the inbuilt ‘softness’ in the paint.

A prototype in preparation for storage, 2018. Photo by Linda Waters. Te Papa

As a consequence of all this, the paint skins need well-designed storage to protect them. Paul Solly, Object Support Preparator, and I are currently working out a system for storing the pieces long term. We are working on providing a box with an individual tray inside for each skin. The tray will support the skin, prevent anything sitting on the surface and allow easy handling. The whole design needs to be economical and efficient to make! Prototypes are underway.


‘A mix of control and accident’ – Helen Calder in her own words


  1. I have seen her works in dealer galleries on ArtExplore Walk & Talk and Art Precinct and been fascinated by them I am delighted these works are in the National Collection. Thanks for the intriguing comments

  2. this is very fascinating. who would ever have thought you could “paint” like this? BTW the past tense of to lead is spelt led not lead. cheers sherry

    1. Author

      Hi Sherry, thanks for the spelling correction! And, yes, I find the work really fascinating too and so beautiful to look at in the flesh, as it were.

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