January 16, 2018

A question I have been asked over and over through the years…What can I write on the wall with? There have been many artists in my career that want to write and draw directly on a gallery wall, and the materials you use can seriously affect the recovery process for the next installation. In some cases, a decision can haunt you for a long time. Here are some of the usual suspects and my thoughts on how they work….

  • Sharpie/Permanent Marker– This is a big no-no unless you want to be revised by the work over and over. The ink in these markers soaks through most paint and will take some serious primer to reverse. I would avoid these markers at all costs. There is a paint made by Benjamin Moore called Impervex Latex Enamel High Gloss (309) in Ink Black. If you really need the look of a marker I recommend getting this paint and a Water Brush drawing tool.

  • Charcoal/Graphite– This material gets brought up in two major forms…stick and powder. Pencils and charcoal sticks are the only recommendable ways to use these materials if you need to. I recommend other options are considered though, because you will need to wash the walls after the exhibition is over. Avoid powder versions of these materials at all costs. Even if this work will happen in a gallery with no other work, the powdered material can easily be moved around a museum. Between recirculated air and getting tracked by visitors powder versions of graphite and charcoal can get everywhere. There are fixatives to hold it in place, but they are rarely foolproof and can affect the way the wall take paint after the project is over.

  • Indian and Chinese Inks– These inks are similar to permanent markers in the way they act on the wall. I have worked with several artists that use these, and two things are good to consider….Can you water the ink down? It helps to cut the strength of the permeation of the ink. It does weaken the effect of the color, so it might be best for some of the prep work and initial sketching, but you might not be able to use it as a solution for the whole work. The other thing that can be done to help recover from an ink installation is to prime before and after. If you need the wall to be a color other than primer white, I recommend priming two coats and then painting the wall the color you need. Be prepared to paint two to three coats of primer over the ink before repainting the wall for the next exhibition.

  • Paint Pens/ Acrylic and Enamel– There are lots of great options in the paint pen market these days. I recommend sticking with the water based one since latex paint tends to stick to it better. Recovers from paint pens is a lot easier than when brushes are used. More than likely you would need to sand the brush marks down before repainting the wall. Most art stores carry acrylic and other multi-size paint pens which can allow for ease in making the work and prepping for the next show. I recommend avoiding oil based paint pens. The paint can make it challenging to sand and for future latex paints to stick well.

  • Brushes and Paints-These are some of the most common methods and materials, and one to plan for in recovering the wall. When paints like acrylic dry they become plastic, and will leave a topographical map on the wall. There is little that you can do to prep the wall and luckily these materials are usually very topical. Just plan time into the schedule to orbital sand the wall, and recovery should be fine. It is advised to avoid big geometric shapes, stripes, and other masking projects. The lines that get created can be very tough to reverse even with sanding…especially on older walls. Masking and taping lines can sand unevenly or build up in a way that shows under future coats of paint.

Tricks to Help Speed Up Recovery

I recommend skinning the wall in something like ⅛” MDF and spackling the seams. This helps with many things that are hard to recover from…stripes, metallic paints, and adhesives. Honestly…if you need to use metallic paint, and you can, just build a temp wall and trash it. Many murals and wall installations can include all sorts of materials that are painted and glued onto the wall. Skinning the wall not only handy for cutting down on the recovery time, it also allows for installations to be saved. I can’t tell you how many times the artist changes their minds and wishes they could keep a wall installation.

I tried to touch on the major materials that have come up in my experience. The main thing to consider when preparing wall installations is to consider the recovery. If that is not kept in consideration it can cause issues for years afterward.

If you have any questions about other materials please send me a note. If you have any tricks to add I would love to know. Thanks and hope this helps!

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