Is It Okay to Use House Paint for Art?

Artist throwing house paint at canvas
Artist Throwing Paint at Canvas. Vital Pictures/Getty Images

Question: Is it Okay to Use House Paint For Art?

"Can beginners use ordinary house paint on canvas? Are there any problems with this. I know that acrylics and oils have the correct properties, but is it possible to use these while learning to paint?" -- Connor

"I know on handboard you're suppose to use gesso. I have tons of white acrylic house paint. Does anybody know if it would make an appropriate substitute?" -- Rachel

Answer:

The question of whether it's okay to use house paint rather than artist's paint is one that comes up in various forms, but all seem to be motivated by the desire to save money. There are a variety of opinions on this, but it is probably best to save money by buying student quality paints, or saving on paint by creating smaller paintings, rather than using house paint.

In his blog Mark Golden of Golden Paints (1) writes: "I can’t tell you how many hundreds of times I’ve heard the question 'Can I use House Paint?' from artists. If you’re asking for my permission by all means go ahead use house paint. ... The opportunity to create and the materials used to create with are limitless. This is a joyous thing. ... But then the next question comes… Is it going to last?"

Golden says: "In no way are [house paints] formulated with any intention to last for hundreds or even dozens of years. I can guarantee that this was probably not in the mind of the formulator.

... The most significant problem with even a quality house paint is that it will begin to develop cracks [some of which] will lead to paint cleaving off of the canvas."

Golden also points out that the hardening of the paint surface means you won't be able to remove a painting from its stretchers and roll it up, or use canvas keys to tighten a sagging canvas.

Also remember that with house paint you still get what you pay for, and the cheaper the paint, the less pigment in it. About.com's Home Repair Guide Bob Formisano says: "most of what you are applying with cheap paint is water or mineral spirits (solvents up to 70%) which evaporate and leave little pigment behind."(2)

Another issue is that house paints don't perform the same as artist's paints -- they are formulated for quite a different purpose. So don't expect them to mix, blend, or glaze like artist's paints. According to DickBlick/Utrecht Art Supplies, "house paint does not generally perform as well as artists' acrylic in terms of durability, lightfastness, and `appearance."(3) Different house paint manufacturers use different vehicles and binders, some of which are more prone to yellowing. House paint may also be more brittle due to fillers and other additives, making it prone to cracking and flaking. Sealing the finished piece with a UV protectant varnish could help with longevity.

As for durability, if you're just painting for yourself, what you use doesn't matter. Or if you're famous (and arrogant) enough you may believe the preservation of your work is a curator's problem. Or you may be of the opinion that as long as the person buying the painting knows that it is mixed media, it's fine.

Ultimately it is a personal choice, dependent on your intent and style, as well as your finances.

Then again, do you want to be mentioned in history books as a bad example, like Turner is when it comes to the use of pigments that fade? 

Famous Artists Who Used House Paints

Scientists have shown that Picasso was one of the first artists to use house paints for his artwork in 1912 to give a glossy surface to his paintings without the evidence of brushstrokes.  This was verified by a  study in 2013, in which scientists compared the paint used in Picasso's paintings with house paint of the same time period using an instrument called a nanoprobe. The conclusion of the scientists was that the paint Picasso used had the same chemical composition as the house paint, a popular oil-based enamel paint in France called Ripolin.

It has been proven to be a very chemically stable paint, and thus should hold up well for centuries, according to the scientific studies done at the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Jackson Pollock, too, used oil-based gloss enamel house paints for his large-scale poured paintings of the 1940s and 1950s. They were less expensive than artists' paints and came in a form that allowed him to paint in his unique style. 

Whereas early twentieth century artists used oil-based enamel paints, bear in mind that most house paint now is latex, which is water-based and not as durable or lightfast as oil-based paint. 

Further Reading

Utrecht Art Supplies Studio Craft: House Paint vs. Artists’ Colors? 

X-rays reveal Picasso's secret, by Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory, Oct. 11, 2012`

Updated by Lisa Marder 7/22/16

References:
1. Can I Use House Paint, Mark Golden on Paint, 14 July 2006 (accessed 11 April 2009).
2. All About Paint, by Bob Formisano, About.com Home Repair Guide (accessed 4 July 2011).

3. Utrecht Art Supplies Studio Craft: House Paint vs. Artists' Colors? (accessed 22 July 2016)