top of page

Colour Your World: Using Patination in Sculpture for Visual Interest

Updated: Jul 12

What is patination

A brief history

Patination in the modern day

The science of patination

Other techniques

In conclusion

Many people have heard of patination or patina when discussing bronzes, but what is it? What colour is un-patinated bronze? Most people think of the traditional brown that is seen on so many sculptures, whereas, in fact, it's gold!

A gold coloured grouse sculpture on a stand with a man dabbing on chemicals to patinate it.
A bronze black grouse at the start of patination.

Patination is a fascinating natural process that occurs on the surface of certain metals like copper, bronze, and brass. Learning about patination is an exciting experience for art collectors who are interested in a greater understanding of the creative process behind their sculptures.

Before diving into patination's details, let's first understand what it is and why it happens. Patination is a fascinating natural process that occurs on the surface of certain metals like copper, bronze, and brass. Patination is the process by which a thin layer of corrosion forms on the surface of a metal due to exposure to air and moisture. This layer, known as a patina, acts as a protective barrier between the metal and the environment, preventing further corrosion and degradation. Most bronzes have a finish that is an artificial patination whose creation process involves the chemical or physical alteration of the surface of a material. This layer can change the appearance, texture, and colour while also providing protection from corrosion.

A brief history

The history of patination dates back to ancient times when metals were used for decorative purposes. Ancient peoples used patination techniques to create beautiful sculptures and jewellery.

Ancient Egyptians, for example, copper and bronze, were often used to create sculptures and other decorative objects coated with a layer of patina. Similarly, bronze sculptures in ancient Greece and Rome were often coated with a layer of patina to enhance their aesthetic appeal and give them a more natural and organic appearance. The practice continued throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance when artists and artisans used patination to create intricate and ornate metalwork highly prized for its beauty and craftsmanship.

A bronze Roman emperor with his right arm in the air whilst holding a staff in his left arm.

During the Industrial Revolution, the use of patina became less common as mass production techniques made it more difficult and expensive to achieve. However, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a renewed interest in traditional crafts and decorative arts led to a resurgence in the use of patination.

Patination in the modern day

Today, patination remains popular among artists, designers, and metalworkers who seek to create functional and aesthetically pleasing objects. From sculptures and jewellery to furniture and architectural elements, patination is used to create a wide range of decorative and functional objects that are valued for their beauty, durability, and unique character.

The science of patination

Patination is achieved through various methods, including chemical and physical processes. Chemical patination is achieved by applying a chemical solution alongside heat, causing oxidisation on the surface of the metal; the reaction creates the desired patina. Common chemicals used in patination include liver of sulphur, ferric nitrate, and cupric nitrate patination, exposing the metal to a combination of heat and chemicals. The chemicals are applied by painting, spraying or stippling with a brush whilst the bronze is hot.

A man is brushing a chemical onto the sculpture of the black grouse which is now green.
The black grouse having had a chemical stippled on.

Green patina, for example, is often achieved through the use of copper sulphate or ammonia, which react with the metal surface to create a greenish-blue colour. On the other hand, black patina is achieved through the use of liver of sulphur, which reacts with the metal surface to create a black colour. Brown patina, meanwhile, is often gained through the use of ferric nitrate, which reacts with the metal surface to create a reddish-brown colour.

The metal used can also affect the finished patina. For example, copper develops a greenish patina, while bronze and brass develop a reddish-brown patina. The colour of the patina depends on the chemical composition of the metal, the environmental conditions and the chemicals. For example, specific treatments can accelerate or modify the patina that forms on metal surfaces. Similarly, coatings such as lacquer or wax can prevent patina from forming altogether.

While these are some of the most common types of patina, many other variations are achieved through different combinations of chemicals and heat sources. By understanding the different types of patina and how they are created, sculpture lovers can gain a greater appreciation for the artistry and complexity of patination. The benefits of using patination are numerous. Patination can enhance the beauty of the metal by adding texture and colour, making it more visually appealing. Additionally, patination can provide protection from corrosion and other environmental factors, extending the life of the metal.

Other techniques

Now that we understand the basics of patination and the factors that affect the process let's discuss how to create patina on metal surfaces. There are several methods for creating patina, including:

1. Natural patination: This method involves exposing the metal to the environment and allowing the patina to form naturally over time. Natural patination is a slow process that can take months or even years, resulting in a beautiful and unique patina.

2. Chemical patination: This method involves applying a chemical solution to the metal surface to accelerate the patination process. Chemical patination is a faster method than the natural process, but it requires careful handling of the chemicals and can be dangerous if not done correctly.

3. Heat patination: This method involves heating the metal surface to create a patina. Heat patination is a controlled method that produces consistent results but requires specialized equipment and experience to execute correctly.

4. Combination patination: This method involves combining two or more patination methods to create a unique and customised patina.

A man is heating up the bronze sculpture with a flame and will then apply chemicals to create the patination.
The sculpture is heated every few seconds in between the application of chemicals.

In addition to the methods for creating a patina, there are several techniques for modifying and enhancing a patina. These techniques include:

1. Abrasion: This involves rubbing the metal surface with an abrasive material to remove some of the patina and create a distressed or aged appearance.

2. Polishing: involves using a polishing compound to remove some of the patina and create a shiny or reflective surface.

3. Waxing: involves applying a wax coating to the metal surface to protect the patina and create a smooth, glossy finish.

4. Application: Applying a protective coating to the metal surface will prevent further patination and preserve the existing patina.

A picture of the finished black grouse sculpture. It has its beak open with the back foot pushed back.  He is displaying his tail feathers.
The completed sculpture has had a wax coating applied to protect the piece from atmospheric factors.

In conclusion

In conclusion, patination is a fascinating process that occurs on the surface of certain metals, creating a unique and beautiful finish which has been used for centuries to enhance, impress and protect the sculpture from environmental factors. Whether you are a metalworker, artist, or simply a lover of beautiful sculptures, patination is an art form that will captivate and inspire. By understanding more about the process of patination, sculpture lovers can gain a deeper appreciation of the art and skill that goes into creating unique and beautiful works of art that will stand the test of time.

bottom of page