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Preventive Care of Paintings at Home

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

Lalit Kumar

Painting is one of the first developed art we know of and has been in existence since the Palaeolithic period. From the beginning of paintings, Humans have used this art as a medium to express their physical experiences of the world. Paintings have played an important role in reflecting culture, religion, knowledge, emotion, and intellectual exploration out from the confines of an internal singular mind to the rest of the people. There have been many adaptations and innovations in the forms of paintings, the style, media, and pigments used in the different periods.

In the 16th century paintings on canvas became common in Europe and America. Now, they are widely used around the world for painting. These collectible paintings are often found adorning the walls in the museums, palaces, and houses of people. Collecting historic and famous artists' paintings has become a hobby as well as an investment for most of us. As our fascination is growing with art and paintings, we are faced with the challenge of protecting these paintings from getting damaged by environmental factors, age, or poor maintenance.

As an art conservator, I often face these questions and queries from clients and owners of paintings. How can we protect them from getting damaged and how to do preventive care for paintings at home? I am trying to answer some of these questions here.

preventive care of paintings at home, omemy tutorials

Q. Why are paintings so expensive?

Not every piece of art is expensive. There are a very small number of acclaimed artists who have developed a very unique style and the demand for their paintings is very high in the market which then makes them very expensive.

Q. How to identify the medium or media of a painting?

In simple terms, a medium is a binder that holds particles of pigments together. Artists have used different types of media based on availability, durability, and choice to create a piece of art. There are different ways to identify the medium of a painting:

  • Most of the time artists will mention the medium of paintings on the backside of the canvas or paste a slip mentioning details of the painting.

  • Art galleries selling paintings have to mention these details on their bills and descriptions of the painting.

  • Most of the old paintings before the 19th century were created using oil paints. Oil paintings are easy to distinguish from other mediums of paint. They mostly have a layer of varnish which makes their surface glossy.

  • It is a bit of a challenge to identify the medium of contemporary paintings as there are different media used by the artist nowadays such as acrylic, oil, tempera, mixed media (more than one type), watercolor, gouache, and ink. For identification of the medium, we should consult the art gallery, art conservator, or artist of the painting.

Q Is it common to have cracks in old paintings?

Yes, aging cracks are the most obvious characteristics of old oil paintings and play a vital role in determining the painting's antiquity.

Lalit restoring a Painting!
Lalit restoring a Painting!

These are a fine pattern of hairline cracks (thin, sharp, angular) that are well-settled and are close to the weave of the canvas. It is very common to find aging cracks with time as varnish and paint layers 'dry' completely and become less flexible with age. These are not harmful to the painting.

However, if the cracks are not settled and the layers are lifting off from the canvas or falling off at places, it is important to consult an art conservator.

Q Is it also common to have cracks in a new painting?

No, it is not common to have cracks in a new painting as they are indicators of deterioration of the painting. There are different kinds of cracks and of these, each type indicates a different problem in the painting.

Drying cracks and stress cracks for example are formed when the canvas and the more rigid paint layer react differently to the changes in temperature and relative humidity. Cracks in your painting could also be due to poor material used or poor technique of application. If the painting has been well constructed and the artist has used good quality materials and sound techniques, the new painting should not have defects.

Q. Why my painting's colors have changed with time?

Paintings do accumulate dust, grime, and even soot over time and these can obscure the image. The natural varnish layer applied to the painting darkens and turns yellow with age. Although most pigments do not change color, some pigments are sensitive to light, acids, bases, etc. and their tonal quality may change with time.

Q. Why do natural varnishes change color with time?

Traditionally, a final coat of varnish is applied to the painting to provide saturation of color and form a thin transparent protective layer between paint film and atmosphere. Traditional varnishes are made from natural resins extracted from plants and animals (dammar, copal). These varnish coatings tend to turn yellow or darken with time due to various chemical reactions in presence of oxygen, light, temperature, etc. They do not darken or change color due to dust and dirt.