Preventive Care of Paintings at Home


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.


Q. Do you think the old yellowed and darken varnished layer should be removed from the paintings?

Yes, I do believe old yellowed and darkened varnished should be removed by a professional art conservator as they hinder the aesthetic appeal and tonal quality of the painting.

Lalit working on a Painting
Lalit working on a Painting

After removal of old varnish, a fresh coat of conservation-grade varnish should be applied as it does not turn yellow with time easily.


Q. Is it right to varnish every painting?

No, it is not right to varnish every painting as different types of media do not require to be varnished like watercolor, gouache, ink, and acrylic paintings. Also, all oil paintings do not require to be varnished.


Q. Can we do preventive care of painting at home without any professional help?

Yes, we can do preventive care without any professional help by just following a few steps:

  • First and foremost is choosing a proper place for hanging a painting. The painting should not be displayed close to air conditioner vents or fireplaces as these areas have a less controlled temperature, and humidity and are accident-prone. The painting should not be hung in a place with direct sunlight as the chances of fading and damage are more. Similarly, basements, bathroom walls, or damp walls increase the possibility of fungal attack and damage to the painting.

  • The painting should be displayed on drywall at normal temperature in areas where fluctuations in temperature and humidity are very less. Also, appropriate wires, hooks, wall studs, and other hardware should be used when hanging any painting.

  • While handling or moving paintings, ensure that the painting is not damaged and the paint layer is stable. Handle the painting with clean, dry hands, or use cotton gloves and remove rings, watches, and other jewelry. Avoid touching the painted surface and carry the painting from the sides of the frame or stretcher using both hands (do not carry it by the top).

  • If there are no signs of loose or flaking paint, or unsettled cracks (lifting or curling paint), then the painting can be cleaned with dry, soft hair, and an artist's brush periodically to remove loose dirt. Dry or moist dust cloths, stiff bristle brushes, or feather dusters should not be used to dust a painting.

  • Good housekeeping, proper ventilation, protection from pollution and pests in the area around the painting, and periodical close examination of the painting for signs of flaking, cracks, discoloration, warping of support, etc. are important. In case of any of these signs, it is important to seek professional help.


Q. Should we clean our paintings at home?

Yes, it is an important part of preventive care of paintings to clean paint from time to time using a very soft natural hair artist's brush as it helps protect the painting from dust and dirt.


We should use dry soft hair brushes to clean the painting and avoid the use of wet cloth or water on the painting. Also, while dusting, the painting should be positioned upright, and the brushing may be carried out slowly and gently in one direction (across or downwards) first and a second brushing in the opposite direction.


Q. Why is my painting showing mold growth and how to protect them?

Mold growth happens if the surface of the painting has moisture. The paint layer and other organic components of the painting provide nutrition to the mold. This happens usually when paintings are displayed in areas with high relative humidity (damp areas) with poor ventilation.

The best way to prevent mold growth is to display and store paintings in dry, well-ventilated areas. If mold occurs, it is important to expose the painting to air and indirect sunlight to allow drying and killing of spores and seek professional help.

While handling mold-infested paintings, it is recommended to use a mask to keep away from inhaling the spores of mold, as they directly reach the lungs and cause respiratory disorders.

Also, damp conditions encourage blooming/blanching or the formation of a whitish haze in paintings where moisture penetrates the varnish and paint layers and reduces the translucency of these layers.


Q. Is it okay to keep the painting in storage with bubble sheets wrapped around them?

No. It is recommended to use different kinds of polypropylene terephthalate (PET) plastic available on the market instead of bubble sheets. Bubble sheets are designed to protect objects packed from shocks but when we use them for covering paintings directly, they leave the impression of bubbles on the paintings. In this way, they damage the painting more than protect them from dust and dirt.


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About the Author


Lalit Kumar completed his Master’s degree in Conservation, Preservation and Heritage Management from the Delhi Institute for Heritage Research and Management in 2012. He was awarded a junior research fellowship in 2012. He started his art conservation career with IRTHD in 2012 and later moved to the INTACH in 2013. He is working as a senior conservator with INTACH Conservation Institute Delhi. He has accomplished many conservation projects undertaken by INTACH as a project coordinator. He has also conserved and treated a number of pieces of art at the Conservation laboratory. He was awarded Indian conservation fellowship in 2018. Now he is also involved in the research of multi-spectral imaging techniques as a non-invasive tool. You can get in touch with Lalit by writing to him at scorelalitkumar@gmail.com





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