Prolegomenon to Future Patina Studies

The Progression of Pilgrim Bronze. A.G. (c) 2016

Preamble: Introduction to “The Patina-Project”

I have already started and am well into a formal study of the phenomenon of Patina, both as an object of research and a subject for future artworks. I am calling it (codeword) “The Patina-Project” temporarily for now, and you may see me referring to it simply as “Patina Studies”.

What is Patina? Let us begin with some definitions for the term “patina”. From WordNet, we get the following definitions:

S: (n) patina (a fine coating of oxide (produced by oxidation over a long period of time) on the surface of a metal (particularly copper))
S: (n) patina (an acquired change in the appearance of something (other than metal or wood)) “a patina of frost”; “a patina of good breeding”
S: (n) patina (a gloss or sheen on wooden furniture produced by age, polishing, or handling)

From Wiktionary, we get the following:

(originally) A paten, flat type of dish
The color or incrustation which age and wear give to (mainly metallic) objects; especially, the green rust which covers works of art such as ancient bronzes, coins and medals.
A green colour, tinted with grey, like that of bronze patina.
(figuratively) A gloss or superficial layer.

Google gives us the following definitions:

a green or brown film on the surface of bronze or similar metals, produced by oxidation over a long period.
a gloss or sheen on wooden furniture produced by age and polishing.
an impression or appearance of something.
“he carries the patina of old money and good breeding”

And finally, Wikipedia gives us the following information on Patina:

Patina is a thin layer that variously forms (a small amount of surface rust, without pitting) on the surface of stone; on copper, bronze and similar metals (such as any ferrous metals, i.e. steels and irons) (tarnish produced by oxidation (rust) or other chemical processes); on wooden furniture (sheen produced by age, wear, and polishing); or any such acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. Patinas can provide a protective covering to materials that would otherwise be damaged by corrosion or weathering. They may also be aesthetically appealing.

As we can clearly see, Patina is a term with many different meanings. Technically speaking, it is something that forms on certain metals through an electrochemical process (“incrustation”, “green rust”, “oxidation”, etc.). We all must have seen metals used in architecture that have that green sheen to them. This is the official “color” or “hue” of the kind of patina one might typically find forming on copper or bronze:

The Patina Hue. A.G. (c) 2016

In any case, the concept of patina comes up in several different places. After consulting the literature on patina in several different disciplines, I noticed that there didn’t seem to be a general notion of Patina, i.e. that there is no “general theorem of patination processes” (Because it IS a process).

For instance, when speaking of copper, one might speak of “patina” OR else one might speak of “verdigris”. The latter, verdigris, has a slightly different hue, according to the sources:

The Verdigris Hue. A.G. (c) 2016

One can find a treatment or study of patina in several different disciplines. For instance, one might find material in “Corrosion Engineering”. One might find something in a text dealing with “museum microclimates”. In the world of antiques, patina is a common term referring to anything from the “character” of a given piece of furniture to statements about “wear & tear” or else “history of use” in more general terms.

On A General Notion Of The Patination Process

There is another area where one can find much that has been written on the concept of Patina. Let’s call it “Digital Media” for short. In image processing or digital design, for instance, one might speak of “surface reconstruction” or else “rendering” of patina-like visual effects. One might speak of imitating an “aging process” maybe in terms of “time-varying surfaces”, i.e. with titles such as “Realistic Simulation of Weathered Bronze”, “Digital Materials and Virtual Weathering”, “Advanced Material Appearance Modeling”, etc.

There is even a concept of “Digital Patina”. Two studies in particular give a good rendering of the subject (though approached differently), namely, “PATINA: layering a history-of-use on digital objects” by Ansel Arjan Schatte (1993) and “A Matter of Time: Digital Patina and Timeboundedness in New Media” by Johanne Pelletier (2005).

From Johanne Pelletier’s thesis, we find the following abstract:

“The term patina refers to a particular quality of decay in material objects, where the decay is both a physical and symbolic property of the object. As a physical property patina is an expression of the passage of time, a visual marker of the object’s timeboundedness reflected in signs of ageing and/or use. This thesis considers the implications of a digital patina, including its relevance for an analysis of the relationship between things and time or timeboundedness.”

Already, we can begin to see a diversity of meanings to the term Patina. Since this is only a Prolegomenon to Future Patina Studies, I will not go much further than this. For now, I leave you with a digital artwork that I made on the subject of “Digital Patina”.

Digital Patina. A.G. (c) 2015


Over the course of the next year or so, I will be formally studying patina in all of its forms and in fact I have already been studying it for the better part of a year. I hope to speak of degradable materials, of the aging of products, devices, technological objects, of what might be called “transient technology”, “obsolescence” etc. I want to speak of sustainable design as well, cradle-to-cradle design, the life cycles of designs, as well as concepts of “upcycling” and so forth, where “Patina” takes on newer and deeper meanings, as a reflection or representation of the passage of time, with all of the concepts, in design and other disciplines, that come with such treatments.

In the end, I hope to come to a “general notion of Patina” that is applicable to all disciplines or domains that make use of the term and concept. I will be modelling patination processes formally, mathematically, and corrosion processes more generally. As a corollary to the physical process of patination/oxidation/corrosion, I also want to treat the concept of the appreciation in value over time of certain cultural artifacts, like antique furniture, for instance. In fact, I will be using antique furniture a great deal as a kind of toy model for treating of ideas related to patina in general.

The basic idea, and my approach, will be to generalize my research findings. They key will be the generalizability of my findings, and that’s what is going to “inform” or “inspire” the artworks that I will be making, usually as didactic reference materials FOR the research itself, as a sort of accompaniment. I will be taking certain points and “highlighting” them with digital images, sounds, and other artifacts. Hopefully, I can generalize patina to much more than a mere time-varying surface effect. For instance, it will be interesting to see how the concept of patina applies to digital artifacts, but of non-representational and non-visual natures, like digital audio. Or else we will look at user interfaces and see the differences in paradigms and styles and so forth over time. I will also be looking at cinema and video in general (and all media considered to be fundamentally “time-based”).

Lastly, let me just say this. In essence, the arts have always had everything to do with time. In fact, everything that humans do always necessarily takes place IN time and OVER time. If I paraphrase Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, then everything humans do is just so many different ways of “structuring time”. Objects in the world exist — persist! — in time. What I think that I can add as an interdisciplinary artist and researcher is a slightly deeper understanding of what I might call “Qualities of Time”.

That is to say, we are all familiar with the “chronological” aspect of time, time as it is measured, whether it is in seconds, minutes, hours, days, and so on. That is the time that clocks tell, let’s call it “quantitative time”. “Qualitative time”, then, or “Qualities of Time” // “Time-Qualities”, are different. If we go back to the “birth” if you will of the Still life composition in painting, one finds the Vanitas, the Memento Mori, which have everything to do with the passage of time. In the Vanitas tradition, one finds elements, objects, that represent time and its passage: a human skull, or a candle, walnuts, etc. These were all utilized because they could stand in as metaphors for Time, its passage, timeboundedness itself. The term itself, Vanitas, is said to come from the book of Ecclesiastes, specifically from the phrase “vanity of vanities; all is vanity”.

Painting itself, and all writing along with it, is a form of telling time in the sense that it leaves a “mark”. The cultural artifact itself, whether it is a Sumerian clay tablet or a medieval painting, is essentially a “mark” left by the passage of time, and of humans living at that time. Culture, then, can leave a “mark” on the overall environment or “milieu” if you will. Elsewhere and at another time, I hope to develop my theory of culture, especially of the concept of “habitance” which has to do with the marks that peoples and their cultures leave on the milieux that they “inhabit”. I mention all of this as background information that will become more and more useful as I study Patina.

For this formal study of Patina is not a study of Patina for its own sake; I hope to prove that in the arts & culture industry, nothing is ever only for its own sake. There is always more to come. It is always a work-in-progress, ongoing, unfinished, open-ended. This study of Patina is only the beginning.