A Guide For Buyers: Caring For Your Artwork

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As you are probably already aware, a well looked after painting will capably remain unmarred for many decades, if not centuries - evidence of this can be seen in museums the world over. Yes, of course, the proper materials and mediums must be used in the paintings conception, but there are also many things an owner or keeper can do to ensure the longevity of a piece, and that  its original glory is not lost over time. For art collectors and first time buyers alike, this may all seem like rather touchy ground; there are numerous mediums that must be cared for in different ways, and the last thing anyone would want is to damage their painting in the act of preserving it, no matter how much it cost.

With this guide we hope to take the uncertainty out of caring for your artwork, giving you all the know-how you need to make informed decisions about what precautions should be taken to properly look after your painting/s, after all, prevention is always better than cure. We will cover how to correctly treat and care for paintings done in acrylic or oil, and briefly touch on caring for pastel, charcoal and watercolour artworks in the final section. However, before we get specific, lets start with the things you need to know regardless of what your piece is painted in or on.

Caring For Paintings & Prints - General Advice

- Never hang or display an original painting or print in direct sunlight, nor directly light it from above or below as to showcase it. All light will eventually damage paper and canvas over time, but as you of course actually want to be able see the painting, this becomes an issue of damage prevention more than anything else; just bear in mind that sunlight will cause damage and colour fading the quickest, while your best option in terms of preservation is an indirect incandescent light source. If you do want to hang something in a well lit room, say a conservatory for example, a mosaic or printed reproduction may be the wiser choice in this case.

- Never display or store a painting in a location where it is subject to extreme shifts in temperature, hot or cold. For this reason you should avoid keeping paintings in basements, lofts, bathrooms, and kitchens, and never display them next to a radiator, fireplace (which also gives off harmful fumes and soot), or other heat source. High temperatures increase the rate at which paints deteriorate, whereas cold conditions will make the paint overly brittle and more likely to crack.

- Similarly to temperature, rapid changes in humidity can be very detrimental to the wellbeing of a painting. If the air around a piece is too damp the paper or canvas can expand, only to warp and contract when humidity levels return to normal. To best protect your artwork from shifts in humidity, you should again avoid keeping it in rooms such as basements, lofts, bathrooms, and kitchens. Ideal humidity lies between 50% to 70%, any higher will spur the growth of mould.

 - Acidic and non-archival materials, such as wood, cardboard and non-conservation grade matboard, should never be brought into direct contact with your painting or print; the acids contained in such materials will cause the painting to take on a yellow tinge, ultimately spoiling the entire piece. If a piece is framed or due to be framed, always make sure acid-free mats and foam core is used, and that the piece is protected from the backboard with an acid-free sheet.

- To avoid unnecessary wear you should aim to clean a painting or print as rarely as possible, and only after a thorough inspection as to make sure the surface is stable. That being said, it is highly important that you do not allow dust to linger on a piece for extended periods of time; asides from the unpleasant appearance, dirt acts as a host for mould and can cause moisture and pollutants to be absorbed into the surface of the painting. If a painting does get dusty never attempt to clean it with any type of household cleaner, such products simply aren’t intended to be used on sensitive surfaces. Unframed acrylic and oil paintings are best given a gentle dust with a clean and dry feather duster or soft natural-haired brush; just be cautious of the texture of your painting, you don’t want to snag and damage it - in the case of heavily textured paintings cleaning with compressed air is often the preferred method, but such a job should only be undertaken by a specialist cleaner. Normally only applicable to oil and acrylic paintings, if your piece has been properly varnished it can be safely cleaned with a lightly damp cloth providing the varnish is not water soluble. Frames should also be cleaned with a damp cloth, and remember to use proper glass cleaner sprayed onto to to the cloth as oppose to directly onto the glass when wiping-down the protective glass pane, using polish and other general cleaners will slowly corrode the glass over time. Note: If you are tentative about cleaning a painting yourself, for whatever reason, then we highly urge getting a professional fine art conservator to do the job.

- Especially important in the case or valuable unframed prints or originals, take special care to make sure your hands are clean before handling the artwork, ensuring they are well rinsed, soap-free, and dry before doing so. Oils from your hands will, in time, be absorbed by and stain a painting or print. For the best protection, wear clean white cotton gloves while handling a piece, they are readily available online or from most hobby and craft shops. Framed artwork should be held firmly from both sides when carried/moved, not lifted by the hanging wire.

- If you have a particularly valuable piece of artwork to be framed it is always worth spending the extra money and using a reputable framer (it is probably worth noting here that artworks in charcoal, pastel, pencil or watercolour should almost always be framed, along with any piece which is on paper). Make certain that the frame shop you choose has the expertise and materials to properly frame and preserve your piece, and that any procedure they undertake is reversible. The best way to establish the specialists from the dabblers is to do a bit of your own homework and have plenty of questions ready to ask once you get into the shop. Furthermore, in the case of framing artworks done in charcoal, pastel, watercolour or pastel, you should always use a glass pane for protection instead of acrylic or other plastic-based materials; these plastics are statically charged and can pull particles of charcoal or pastel etc away from the picture’s surface. For added protection against sunlight, regardless of medium, you may also opt to use UV filtering, anti reflective glass.

- Regularly check your painting/s for signs of damage or deterioration, after all,  the sooner you spot a problem the more likely it is that something can be done to fix it. You’ll want to inspect  the piece for:

      - Small holes, which may be a sign of woodworm - prompting the need for a new frame or, in the case of canvases, require your piece is stretched over new wood.

      - Clouding and colour loss. This could indicate that a painting has or is being kept in an environment where the humidity is too high.

      - Signs of the paint peeling, cracking or flaking. In which case you should lay the piece flat until repair.

      - Any structural problems with regards to the frame. This could be anything from  loose hooks, screws or brackets, to frayed wire/s and detached joints etc. Note: heavy paintings should always be hung by at least two heavy-duty hooks, each capable of supporting around double the weight of the piece, equally robust hanging wire should also be used.

- Never smoke near a painting, it will soil and discolour the picture’s surface.

- Always keep a note of the medium/s and processes used in the formation of your piece, so that this information can be passed on should you require the services of a professional cleaner or restorer; the more they know the better the job they can do.

- Lastly, if your painting does for some unfortunate reason incur damage, always seek advice from the original artist or a professional restorer.

- Original works on stretched canvas are most often protected with a coat of clear varnish, and do not need to be covered with glass or framed. Furthermore, if the canvas ever becomes wrinkled or baggy due to temperature or age, you should take it to a professional framer for tightening or re-stretching.

Caring For Acrylic Paintings

Although seen as a little below standard when they first gained popularity during the 50’s and 60’s, acrylic paints are now regarded as a great medium for artists to work in. Acrylic paintings are considered very stable, they maintain their original luster as long as or if not longer than oil paintings, dry quicker, show more resistance to damage from light and UV radiation, yellow less over time, and are far less prone to cracking and other associated issues when compared to stiffer paint films. For such reasons paintings done in acrylic can make a wise investment for any buyer, but despite their durability still need a bit of care and attention. Indeed, some traditional preservation methods can actually harm acrylic paints, and their aging process is only now beginning to be properly understood thanks to ongoing research. What is clear however is that preventive care is key to properly looking after acrylic paintings, and that they should only really be intervened with when absolutely necessary.

Here is our list of the major things to consider in caring for an acrylic painting.

- In comparison to oil, acrylic paint films tend to be more supple at room temperature, and while this does mean a greatly reduced chance of the picture’s surface flaking or splitting, this extra softness does summon its own set of problems: making acrylics more susceptible to damage from impacts, handling, probing hands, and packaging materials. Dirt and dust particles, if left  long enough without cleaning, can also become embedded into the paint, slowly degrading colours and textures. By contrast, exposure to cold conditions can cause acrylic paints to harden significantly, and in time will most certainly crack. To summarise, always keep in mind that acrylic paintings are more sensitive to changes in temperature than pieces composed in other mediums, and should ideally be stored somewhere between 16ºC - 26ºC; just never below 10ºC and never above 30ºC.

- Due to its softer nature at room temperature, extra care should always be taken when handling or transporting an acrylic painting. Accessories such as rings and bangles should be removed, protecting the canvas as well as the paint, and at no point should the piece be propped up against a hard or pointed surface.  Always ensure your hands are clean, but for the best protection wear white cotton gloves when touching a piece directly.

- Acrylic paints can hold an electrostatic charge meaning they are more likely to attract dust than other mediums. With this in mind chemical or ammonia based cleaning products should never be used to clean acrylic paintings, and should instead be gently dusted with a clean and dry feather duster or soft natural-haired brush (a good rule of thumb is to avoid liquids altogether). In some cases, normally when it comes to highly textured paintings, cleaning with compressed air is the recommended approach, but such a job should only be undertaken by a professional. If you do need to clean your artwork, using a specialist art cleaner with a good reputation is always highly advised. They will employ a step by step process which sees the least amount of intervention possible at each stage, progressively becoming more aggressive as is required. If your painting is not on canvas, one good way to keep it in prime condition and dust-free is with a protective frame. Just make sure that the frame shop you choose has the expertise and materials necessary to properly frame and preserve your piece, and that any procedure they undertake is reversible.

- Varnishing an acrylic painting is not only a great way of providing surface protection against heat, humidity, abrasion, cleaning, pressure and dust, but can also be used to give a dulling piece a renewed, professional looking finish. However, before you go through with anything, always seek as much advice as possible from the original artist; they will be able to provide you with the most accurate information with regards to how long your painting should be left to dry before varnish is applied, what types of varnishes are suitable, how best to apply it to that particular piece, and some artists will even advise you don’t varnish their acrylic paintings at all. The major concerns surrounding varnishing acrylic paintings are that traditional varnishes, such as dammer, will eventually yellow over time, and that acrylic-resin varnishes have similar solubilities to those of acrylic paint, meaning any solvents used to remove the varnish may also damage or soften the paint in the process. For these reasons make sure a specialist varnish such as ‘GOLDEN Polymer Varnish’ or ‘MSA Varnish’ is used, and that an ‘isolation coat’ is put down before any varnish is applied. The isolation coat  forms a permanent barrier which physically separates the paint  from the removable varnish; this protective layer, normally consisting of something like ‘GOLDEN Soft Gel Gloss’ mixed with water,  will help to protect the artwork’s surface if the varnish is ever removed. Note: always get a professional art conservator to varnish your painting - even for someone with extensive knowledge and experience such a job is inherently delicate with lots of variables to  take into account.

Caring For Oil Paintings

- When buying an oil painting, especially a new piece, there is a very good chance it has not truly dried yet. Yes, it may feel dry to touch, but there is a big distinction between an oil painting feeling dry and it actually being dry. For a painting to just feel completely dry may only take around 1-2 weeks, but for it to dry on a chemical level and cure can take anywhere from a year up to many decades depending on the quality of the paint and what it was mixed with etc. This is important to know for  few reasons:

      - Firstly, uncured oil paints are noticeably soft and therefore more susceptible to damage, so you’ll want to ensure you protect your painting from being scratched, knocked, probed or rubbed against early on.

      - Secondly is the fact that uncured oil paint can be both light and dark sensitive. As previously mention you never want to keep a painting by a direct light source, but this rule stands especially true for uncured oil paints as deterioration will occur quicker at this stage. Conversely, keeping a newly painted oil painting in darkness may cause white hues to take on a yellow tinge, however once properly cured this is no longer an issue and your piece can be safely preserved in darkness.

      - Oil paintings need exposure to oxygen to cure properly, so framing them naturally slows this process down. For this reason, if you do wish to frame your painting, make sure a gap of at least 1.5cm is left between the paintings surface and the glass, thus allowing plenty of room for air to move over the piece.

- Similarly to acrylics, but with far fewer complications, a properly varnished oil painting is a very durable, long lived art form. As well as giving an even surface finish and helping to restore the original lustre of a painting, varnish also provides superb protection against dust, pressure and moisture, but despite this is not actually essential and is considered more of an aesthetic preference than anything else. For this reason most original oil paintings are supplied unvarnished, allowing the buyer to decide what kind of finish they want the varnish to give (matt or gloss for example), or indeed if they want to use any varnish at all. It is important to remember that varnish should not be applied to oil paints until they have had at least six months to dry and harden, and even then can take a number of years before they are considered sufficiently cured. Due to this lengthy timescale it becomes even more important to make sure that a varnish specifically intended for paintings is used in this process, and special care should be taken to choose a varnish which allows the piece to continue to breathe and oxidise even once dried. Again, unless you are an experienced buyer, make sure your painting is varnished by a reputable art conservator, and with guidance/advice from the original artist.

- Whether varnished or not, cured oil paintings can be safely wiped down with a slightly damp cloth in order to remove any gathered dust. Because oil paint is impervious to water, you don’t run any risk of damaging your artwork by doing this; just make sure the water you use to moisten the cloth is clean and at room temperature. Cleaning with a soft dry brush is also a perfectly acceptable alternative. In severe cases, or if a piece is particularly valuable, the task of cleaning a painting should only be left in the hands of a trained conservator.

- When handling or moving an unframed oil painting never rest the piece against anything hard or pointed, doing so can not only dent the paint, but also disfigure and even tear the canvas; any jewellery such as rings and bangles should also be removed for these same reasons. Always ensure your hands are clean, but for the best protection wear white cotton gloves when touching a piece directly.

Pastel, Charcoal, and Watercolour on Paper

- Pastel, charcoal and watercolour artworks will need to be properly  framed and mounted in order to to be displayed safely. Compared to oil and acrylics their surfaces are far less stable and easily damaged, meaning dust is much harder to clean away without smudging the piece, and this also makes inquisitive hands more of a problem. As previously mentioned, make sure any framing is done with non-acidic archival quality materials, and that your piece is not protected by a plastic or perspex panel which can draw pigments away from the piece due to the static. Any steps taken during framing should also be reversible.

- Watercolours are notoriously prone to damage from light; everything from the artwork’s colour balance to saturation can be adversely affected, and in some circumstances colours can outright disappear. For the best protection you should keep your piece away from direct light sources, natural or artificial, and you may even consider having your artwork framed behind specialist UV filtering glass for added peace of mind. In addition to fading media, exposure to light can also damage the structure of the paper itself.

- Due to its delicate nature artworks on paper should be regularly and fastidiously inspected for signs of decay or degeneration. The most prominent problems to look out for are:

      - Brown spots or speckles forming on the surface of the piece - a problem referred to as ‘foxing’. These stains are usually caused by the growth of bacteria and/or mould, and often indicates that humidity levels are too high.

      - Insect damage such as tiny holes of grazes, again this is a sign of a poorly controlled environment where temperature and humidity are high.

      - The paper becoming wrinkled, distorted, or torn at the edges. The best way to avoid this problem is to make sure the paper is never adhered to something which restricts its natural movement in shifting temperatures.

To Finish

Thank you for taking the time to look through our guide. Please feel free to leave any thoughts or suggestion of your own in the comments, you can even send us an email if you’d like.

Author: Luke Matheson