Frida Kahlo, famous Mexican painter, used copper plates as a surface for many...

Frida Kahlo, famous Mexican painter, used copper plates as a surface for many...

Frida Kahlo, famous Mexican painter, used copper plates as a surface for many of her paintings. How did she prepare the surface before painting? I have read her biography by Hayden Herrera, but could not find this information. See if you can help me.


I offer my sincere apologies for this reply is long overdue.

Unfortunately, even after lengthy information search I wasn’t able to find the exact method Frida Kahlo used to prepare the paintings she made on copper. However, I was able to find plenty of advices for artists wishing to paint oil on copper (see below). Although Kahlo didn’t have the opportunity the use some of the modern substances, I would guess that her technique couldn’t dramatically differ from the modern methods. But the truth is that I cannot offer you the definitive answer on whether these techniques are similar to those used by her, and for that I apologize.

Mike Brooks from Frida Kahlo Fans (, who gave me many helpful hints for the search, had this opinion of the preparation:

"My guess is that Frida used "home remedies" rather than any scientific method. I suspect she sanded it lightly to rough up the surface, washed it with white vinegar and then wiped it down with a clean cotton cloth to remove the residue. That's the common "home remedy" approach to painting on any metal surface."

I found a mention of the preparation made by "the old artists", though it might refer to the 16th-18th centuries instead of early twentieth century:

"Generally, the old artists scuffed up the surface of a copper plate and rubbed white lead into it with the palm of their hand. The white lead turned a bit greyish at first, but it dried out to look like a cloudy peach color."

Here are all the different advices for preparing the copper surface in a more modern way that I was able found:

"I started by roughing the surface with a soft scouring pad on both sides for a satin finish. At first I would gesso, sand and gesso again. However, I have found that painting directly on the scoured copper is very satisfying and if wanted a glint of copper can come through as highlight/s. So far I haven't seen any change in the quality of the finished work (it is early days of course)."

"Using a good quality metal primer as the coating applied to a clean oxide free surface will provide good performance under normal conditions. The ultimate performance will be divided when an acid etch, 2 component prep primer is applied over clean copper surfaces.

The acid tech primer is usually available at automative paint supply shop. It is suggested that you follow the instructions to the letter.

Acid etching: You MUST insure that you are properly protected with goggles, acid-resistant gloves and proper clothing so that you don't injure yourself. For similar reasons, please insure that you keep others away from this process."

"1. Sandpaper the copper with fine grit paper.
2. Brush some garlic/onion fresh juice over the copper and let it dry.
3. Optional: Brush some resin, it acts a lot like very strong glue, thinned mastic varnish will work just fine.
4. White lead ground to as thick a consistency as possible in boiled linseed oil is brushed with several fin layers, and wait till the layer will dry after brushing the next. Don't forget about the rule "fat other lean".
If you want to lightly send the ground you can wet it with water and then send it, in that way the toxic dust will not blow away.

The #3 step was taken from the book "The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting: With Notes on the Techniques of the Old Masters, Revised Edition" by max Doerner (chapter 10, page 386)."

"First abrade the surface with fine steel-wool as this gives a great keyed surface, then de-grease it with meths or some other alcohol based solvent. I then prime with an alkyd primer (I use winsor&Newtons oil based primer). Apply at least 4 coats brushing one coat one way then the other coat the otherway with about 24 hours between coats! My last coat is usually applied with a palette knife. I leave the plate to dry for at least 6 to 8 weeks then I use fine (600 grade) wet & Dry abrasive paper to obtain a smooth painting surface."

"You can also rub the surface of the copper with garlic to make the paint stick."

What seemed come up often in the search was the decision to use acryl paints instead of oil:

"I sand the surface with fine sandpaper in circular motions. I wash the surface with alcohol and use Alkyd paints thinned with Liquin and turps. I paint many very thin layers which lets the copper base peak through. These paintings have a brillance and depth, a luminous quality. I began with oils but they took too long to dry and the surface attracts any air borne particles and spoils the surface. You need to keep the painting in a covered container while it drys, also the brushes to protect from those above mentioned particles. Windsor and Newton which makes Alkyd paint says it will dry in 48 hours but I have been painting a second layer in 24 hours. I do not yet know what the long term effects of this technique are."

Again I apologize for keeping you waiting for so long for the reply and not being able to provide you with the answer you were searching for. I hope some the tips on the preparation in this reply will be useful to you.

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