The Rust Museum

Let’s talk about rust today. In other words, about corrosion, the decay of metals caused by electrochemical reactions. There is a rule of thumb that says that with every scientific formula in a text you lose half of your readers. So for the detailed chemical explanation I refer to Wikipedia. But the bottom line is that iron is converted into iron oxide through the influence of oxygen and water.

Old reddish brown ship's hull with rust and other damage
Rust never sleeps

Bad news

Rust is usually considered bad news. A rusty hull is regarded by the ship owner as costly and cumbersome damage. That’s understandable: the lifespan of a boat, or a bicycle or a car, is dramatically shortened by the development of rust spots. And I’m not even talking about larger structures such as bridges or about the reinforcing steel in concrete structures. Rust is undesirable and everything, alloys, coatings and galvanizing, is done to prevent it.

Detail of a light blue steel ship's hull that is heavily damaged by rust
Iron ore in the making

Iron ore

Yet, on a philosophical level, rust also has something beautiful. Iron is extracted as an oxide from iron ore and processed into steel. If that steel is exposed to wind and weather, it tends to return to its original state. Nature in fact wants to turn it into iron ore again.

Bright blue ship's hull with contrasting reddish brown stains and stripes of rust
Spectacular colors


But also on a purely aesthetical level, we can say positive things about rust. The greatest beauty often arises from the tension between technology and nature and that’s what’s happening here as well. Have a look at the section of a hull shown above. The beautiful contrast between the bright blue paint and the brown and orange tones of the rust. The blending colors created by the leaking stripes. And finally the relief of large and small bumps around the affected areas. Nothing less than an abstract work of art is created here.

Colorful steel hull of a ship with rust, damages and peeling paint
The beauty of decay

Special effects

The prettiest artwork happens when the rust is accompanied by other signs of aging. Peeling paint in different colors, scratches, streaks, dents, dirt, algae and other special effects. A befriended artist once called it the beauty of decay.

Colorful schip's hull with rust, welding joints, scratches, peeling paint and algae
Rust, algae and peeling paint


Welding joints can also add something to the abstract compositions, as wel as the draughtmark and the Plimsoll lines. These are the numbers that indicate the draught and the lines that indicate the maximum draught under different conditions. They are usually embossed on the hull and painted white.

Secttion of a rusty ship's hull in colors red and brown with welding joints and draughtmarks
Draughtmark and welding joints


Some hulls are starting to resemble maps, due to the aging processes. I already made a few world maps and a map of Rotterdam based on that idea. But sometimes reality is more beautiful than imagination. In the hull section below, I can see nothing else than a map of the United States of America. The rusting and peeling seems to be an appropriate metaphor for the state that country is in.

Ship's hull with peeling paint und stains of rust, looking suspiciously like a map of the United States of America
The peeling states

Museum pieces

On my daily walk through Rotterdam I often include Park Quay. For some reason, there are often ships moored there with overdue maintenance, which sometimes makes it a kind of rust gallery. I have already been able to capture a lot of colorful compositions on that location. I took almost all the photos for this article there.

Such spectacular works of art would of course look best in a museum. Printed more than life-size and beautifully illuminated. With a nice sign next to it with the title, year, place and name of the photographer. Maybe some day…. Awaiting that moment, I have already conjured up a virtual Rust Museum from my laptop.

Interior of a fictional museum with large photos of rusty schip's hulls on exhibition
The virtual Rust Museum

The pieces shown below are available as prints on a variety of materials in my webshop at Werk aan de Muur/Art Heroes, which ships to the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France and fourteen other European countries. In case you live outside of that priviliged part of the world, I recommend my webshop at Fine Art America, which delivers worldwide.

Photo of the hull of an old ship, with scratches, dirt and draughtmarks, printed on canvas in a golden frame
Rust in a golden frame

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