José Ventura (supplied):
If I were to ask what the colour of bronze is; how would you respond? Since bronze is an alloy containing roughly 95% copper, it is known for copper’s qualities of variability. Bronze items kept indoors commonly shine a lustrous, warm brown hue. However, the Statue of Liberty, also cast in bronze, is a quite different, a dull green. This is because the Statue of Liberty is constantly exposed to the elements. Oxidised, a layer of copper carbonate coats its surface.
Like the combined effects of the sun, rain, and salt; my job as a patineur is to change the surface of cast bronze sculptures, to give them a ‘patina’.
A foundry will execute the will of a sculptor in every way, from moulding original clay / wax sculptures to creating bronze duplicates of a sculptor’s work. Once bronze is cast, the colour resembles brass. It can be left to age naturally but unless treated, the initial colour quickly becomes dull and without interest. Waiting for a patina to be produced naturally is not always desirable, since in most cases it takes several years. It is often preferable to have a patina applied by a professional patineur.
Since the patination process mostly involves the use of heat and chemicals, it takes considerable expertise to complete successfully. The patineur alternates layers of colour until, like an autumn leaf, tints and hues subtly decorate the patinated surface. Through this creative process, the artwork is enriched with uniqueness and visual interest. Some sculptors look to patination to enhance a sense of form and texture. Subtle colour changes can make subtleties, like crevices and grooves, stand out. Some sculptors even prefer for their bronzes to resemble antiquities. In this case, varying thicknesses of patina mimic where an antique would be buffed over time by admiring hands. Alternatively, collectors may choose to capture a moment, in a sense, by maintaining the patina of a bronze the way it looked when first purchased.
Before leaving the foundry, every bronze has UV-resistant wax applied to protect its surface, providing durability against the elements. Over time, the sun melts this thin film of wax and exposes the metal. It is at this stage that a sculpture’s patina will start to change. A periodic wax routine is strongly recommended, in this case, especially before and after the hot, summer months. Re-waxing (whilst surface is warm) will ensure that no moisture is trapped between the wax and bronze.
A way to check if wax remains on the surface of a bronze is to spray some water on it and see if it runs down. If it does, the bronze is waxed. If moisture beads on the surface, the bronze is unwaxed. If the patina is quite dry-looking, without contrast and tone, a combination of waxes such as carnauba and beeswax can restore the sheen quite well. If the patina is totally undesirable, common practise is to have the piece sandblasted and re-patinated.
Ancient artefacts, like the 3000 year-old bronze vessels found in Shanghai Museum and the Greek figures removed from the ocean floor, are the source of my inspiration. So rich and vibrant in colour, the extraordinary patinas of these items have been have been preserved by nature’s safe holds and museum curators’ careful husbandry.
While sculptors push the boundaries in contemporary art, patineurs explore new ways to encourage the possibilities of patina – sporadic bursts of mottled colour that lend the viewer a view far back in time. That patination is artificial, seems irrelevant when considering the constructed nature of all art. ARTificiality is as much a part of art as is an idea, a conveyance of inspiration. Patineurs (the secretive, silent artists), continue to further their artisty, breathing life into the beautiful, valuable objects that we bring into our homes and lives.
About the author: Since 2007, José Ventura has been patineur to Dylan Lewis, Lionel Smit, Beezy Bailey, Toby Megaw, and Theo Megaw, to name a few. He has also restored bronzes by the likes of Anton Van Wouw and Eduardo Villa on behalf of Stephen Weltz & Co and Strauss and Co. As a private patineur, Ventura has patinated for foundries such as Bronze Age, Sculpture Casting Services, Bronz Editions, and smaller foundries around Cape Town. He recently returned from China, where he gave a guest lecture and demonstrations on patination at the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, even doing patinas for select artists in China.
Image Caption: José Ventura demonstrating patination at the China Academy of Art