experimental materials for artists

Experimental Materials

Do not be naive about using unique or experimental materials in your art-making practice, and be aware of their short-term, long-term, and permanent effects. Educate yourself by speaking with experts who know the long-term properties of unconventional materials you may be using. These people may be botanists, chemists, physicists, doctors, professors, engineers, etc. Explain what you are using and how it is being used, and get their opinion on the best way to deal with the materials. Common problems are longevity, deterioration, chemical changes, or color shifts. These changes can be strategically incorporated into the artwork with pleasing results, but you should be aware of the physical properties of any material you work with. 

There are numerous online resources that provide technical data on materials below. It is worth your while to look them up in order to save yourself from health problems, and to understand how these materials stand up over time. Many artists have died from overexposure to hazards, many because they did not know their own materials.

Always be aware of the ramifications of using ‘experimental’ materials, including how they may affect a dealer, collector, art audience, gallery space, or environment. Be forthcoming to potential clients about what you know about the chemistry of your materials. No one wants to buy something that they expect to last a lifetime and have it fall apart or change substantially over a decade or two.

Many artists forget the impact of experimental materials on their viewers. Using things that become moldy or decompose in the gallery can lead to serious health problems for gallery workers and viewers who have allergies. Not all galleries are knowledgeable about all materials, so it is your responsibility as an artist to keep them informed. At one gallery a work on display was full of grass that made viewers with allergies very sick, and another work produced about 100,000 flies. When the curator opened the door to the gallery, it reeked of flies and maggots. You do NOT want to get sued for someone getting injured or falling ill.

When in doubt, research!

Remember that all materials and techniques used in your practice are your responsibility. 

We are not talking about just art hazards only here, but using materials which you are not familiar with or do not know the long term outcomes. But, there are some things you should know about and how to get information on various materials.

Some organizations you should be aware of are:

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires chemical manufacturers to develop a material Safety Data Sheet or MSDS for each hazardous chemical they produce or import. The MSDS is required to contain a variety of information including hazards and precautionary information for safe handling.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is an independent agency charged with protecting the public from unreasonable risks of injury or death associated with consumer products.

The Environmental Protection Agency or EPA regulates disposal practices and governs all garbage and industrial waste.

The National Library of Medicine has links to many other websites that reveal important information on toxic elements.

Another source is the Art and Creative Materials Institute (ACMI), which is an international, nonprofit association of over 200 art and craft materials manufacturers and certifies products.

Artists have used new materials or old materials in a new way for centuries. Knowing how materials can affect others may be an important consideration. Knowing that the artwork will fall apart and NOT telling the collector who bought it, will probably cause you problems in the long run, so consider the future of your artwork. Being subversive is one thing, but selling a “product” that can be considered “defective” can end up in a lawsuit.

The materials you choose can also have an adverse affect on the content of your work. There are a number of artworks addressing the “environment” which have used materials that actually help destroy the environment. If you float 1,000 plastic ducks down a river to bring attention to the pollution of a river, are you not contributing to the problem while trying to address the problem? Be smart about the materials you choose.


Feel free to share this article with other artists.

You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.