Part 2 of 3 –
Paintings are perhaps the most common type of artwork. In addition to their obvious aesthetic value, many are culturally significant because of historical or sentimental value. No matter what the importance, caring for your paintings can preserve them for you to enjoy for years to come. And if a painting is damaged, all is not necessarily lost. Restoration and conservation treatment may be able to restore paintings to beauty.
ANATOMY OF A PAINTING
Paintings are made up of several layers, from the support onto which the ground is applied to the paint that covers the ground and creates the image. The support can be made of nearly any material but is typically cotton canvas, linen, wood, masonite or plaster. The support is often, but not always, primed with either an acrylic gesso or rabbit skin glue and a solid layer of paint. The paint itself is often chemically complex, containing synthetic or earth pigments suspended in oil, acrylic, tempera, wax or other mediums. These elements are normally very stable, but exposure to environmental changes or improper storage conditions can result in cracking, blistering or discoloration.
One of the most common causes of discoloration on paintings is yellowing varnish. As a general rule, varnish is meant to protect the paint surface by covering it and catching any airborne grime. Discolored varnish can be professionally removed with gentle solvents without harming the paint layer. In certain situations, when varnish is applied before oil paints have dried, extra care must be taken to ensure that the paint is not removed along with the varnish. Structural damage such as cracking, flaking or fungi growth can also be treated by a painting restoration specialist.
ENVIRONMENT FOR PAINTINGS
Where a painting is stored or displayed, and even how it is hung on the wall, can greatly affect its longevity. Depending on the type of paint used, humidity may cause cracking or peeling. Ideally a painting should be stored in an environment that is comfortable for people, around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and with a relative humidity between 40 and 60 percent. Drastic changes should be avoided as well.
A simple backing board attached to the wooden stretchers helps to keep dust and debris off of the normally raw reverse side of the canvas and can protect the object during handling. This backing should be sealed with no space for air to enter. All paintings should be hung by picture wire strong enough to support the weight of painting and frame. The wire should be stretched fairly taught from one side to the other. We recommend using a hanger attached to the frame with two separate screws. Do not use eye screws as these can pull out. Paintings should always be hung by picture hooks appropriate for the weight of the piece – never on nails. If hung on an exterior wall, use small rubber bumpers placed on the back of the painting to allow air to circulate behind it. A thin insulating board may also be used to isolate the back of the painting from an exterior wall.
Although a fireplace is often a focal spot for a room, a painting displayed above a mantel will be exposed to soot, heat and environmental extremes. Hanging paintings above heating and air conditioning vents or in bathrooms with tubs or showers is also inadvisable because the rapid environmental fluctuations will be harmful. Select a safe place away from high traffic and seating areas.
Paintings should never be in direct sunlight that can fade colors and cause other damage. Halogen lights are a poor choice since they emit damaging ultraviolet light. Lights that attach to the top of the paintings are also not recommended. If these should ever become loose and fall, they may scratch or rip the canvas. Recessed ceiling lights, track lighting and color-balanced incandescent or tungsten bulbs are the best choices.
This blog is part of a continuing series offering advice on preserving, displaying and caring for art objects in your home. Additional information is available at the author’s website. See your local, independent insurance agent for advice on coverage to protect fine art and other items of value.
© Copyright 2016 Doug Eisele; used by permission.