Painting on metal

Contemporary artists working with metal

Clare Woods

I recently saw a painting of hers in enamel on aluminium at Hepworth Wakefield.  On further research I found she uses this combination of media and support a lot, often painting on a very large scale (e.g. 8 metres long).  Her subjects include the landscape and the human form, often painted in a rich palette with an overall sombre feel.  Brushmarks ar very much in evidence, adding to the sculptural feel of her work, which is often an abstraction from photographic source material.

Timothy Spillane

He discusses painting on copper.  Describes how he juxtaposes cool colours against the warmth of the bare copper in the finished work.  The exposed copper areas change as light travels across.  He paints landscape and abstract works in oil.  He incorporates verdigris, which he creates using a chemical process

Janet Cunniffe-Chieffo  paints on copper in a classical style.  She uses thinned oils, painting an imprimatur and then adding colour.  She leaves the copper showing through the thin paint, especially at the edges, integrating the painting with the surface.

Michael Craig Martin “Full Life”  This painting incorporates metal sculptural elements.

Gary Hume paints with gloss and enamel paint on aluminium panel, on a large scale, for example Bird Point III , one of the contextual references for my assignment piece

Geraldine Swayne 

Swayne paints mostly small enamels on copper and aluminium – include portraits, pornography, 1×1.5 inches up to A6 – miniatures, mémento mori, harking back to the 16th century, when copper was used as a support for (often) miniature portraits.  Her enamels have a luminous, jewel-like quality, and although her style can be characterised as ‘messy’, she achieves a great deal of expressive detail, rendering the characters of her sitters with huge insight.  Looking at her rendition of character and expression has made me want to explore the portrait more in my own practise, and to experiment with enamel on metal.

Geniève Figgis

Figgis loves to paint figures in pourings, drips and swirls, in a way that is ‘at the intersection between abstraction and portraiture, horror and humour….life and death’ (  She will often paint her own take on famous paintings of aristocrats and gentility from history, distorting and reinterpreting them (The Swing, after Fragonard), pointing out the absurd and macabre in her subjects.

In the following article she discusses her practise and influences:  

Nathan Holden Vit P2 p138  2 paintings in acrylic on aluminium: one a background of thin veil like colour-field layers, the other, precise, diagonal straight black lines on a flat pale green opaque ground.


Copper and other metals give a smooth, lustrous, satiny finish, and enhance colours, giving a luminosity as the light reflects through the painting from the metal beneath.  Great detail can be achieved more easily than on other supports because of the smooth surface.


Oil and water based paints (including watercolour, although this will reactivated with a subsequent layer, so to be avoided), graphite and coloured pencils, apply and adhere well to aluminium.  Oil is better than acrylic.  It provides a hard, smooth surface.  It’s long lasting and doesn’t warp.  Enamel paint can be applied directly to the raw aluminium (a slippery surface)  otherwise it should be etch primed for tooth, or anodised.  Or wash it with detergent & alcohol or meths ; sand (use a sanding block and either aluminium oxide white grit or silicon carbide wet or dry 100,400,1000 grades paper); acid wash – 1:1 vinegar & water;  prime with thin layer of self-etching primer (optional for oil painting); sand again with high grit number; add a coat of clear gesso if using acrylics.


Same, but Don’t use water based paints unless surface is primed and gessoed.

Nail polish for small areas / writing?  Try enamel paint too.


If the plate is thin and bendable first glue it to a solid substrate e.g. mdf cut to just under the size of the plate (or wrap a piece of plywood with the copper and nail it! – see  To glue, first roughen the back of the copper and clean it (alcohol).  See  Sand and clean the front side, etch with garlic juice.  Primer is optional.  Experiment – make hammer marks; piece the copper together on the substrate and incorporate the ridges; let the edges of the substrate show and be incorporated into the painting.   If areas of the copper are left uncovered seal with a final layer of varnish.


Aluminium Painting Panels

Shopping list

Metal self etching primer

Metal spray paint

Clear gesso

Enamel paint

Polyurethane glue

Mdf, plywood


Trials on prepared aluminium substrate

Orange Pastel pencil – left marks but no colour

Graphite pencil – applied & adhered very well

Charcoal (pencils, fire, willow) all good

Coloured pencil – good, although colour slightly dull compared to same colour on a paper substrate

Watercolour (phthalocyanine green, Naples yellow)) – applied well.  When dry, resistant to gentle rubbing but not to scratching with plastic.  As research suggested, very easily reactivated by brushing on water – so quite fragile as a painting, and would be impossible to layer.

Gouache (red, purple, white) – same properties as watercolour with respect to fragility of dry painted surface

Acrylic (indigo, white) – dries much harder – scratch resistant.  Still reactivated with water until properly dried and hardened, and then is secure.

Household enamel (process blue, dark green, bright red, white) – beautifully glossy, touch-dry within 24 hours.  

Oil paint – (ultramarine, burnt umber, with liquin) – after 24 hours not even tacky, still wet.



San Diego Museum of Art



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