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Preserving Oil Paintings in Your Home

river Museums, libraries, and archives are specialized institutions that often have some expertise in caring for historical artifacts. However, they do not own all the important objects that tell the history of a place. You, as an individual or family group or as part of a community, probably own artifacts that are important to your personal history and the history of your area. How can you take care of these objects so that they will be preserved and appreciated as they pass down the generations?

There are many things that you can do that cost little or no money, that take very little time, and that will reward you and your descendants with artifacts that continue to be beautiful and meaningful as they grow older. This installment of the Museum of Florida History series on preserving artifacts in the home environment concerns works of art, and concentrates on oil and acrylic paintings.

Prevention and Care

Most paintings begin with a wooden frame called the "stretcher." Nailed or stapled to the stretcher is a piece of cloth canvas, made from linen or cotton. On this support, the "ground" or bottom layer of the actual painting begins. This is the white or cream-colored layer of sizing and primer paint that seals the cloth of the stretcher and makes it impervious to the oil in the paint that is brushed onto it. Next comes the layer of paint (oil or acrylic) that we think of as the actual painting. The final layer on the painting is the varnish, clear and colorless when first applied, but probably turning brown in an old artwork. This is a very complex set of materials, and they can interact in a multitude of ways over time.

By taking proper care of your art, you can minimize the possibility of having to call a professional art conservator to repair damage to a painting. If your painting already is in poor condition, the services of that same conservator may be the only way you will be able to preserve and extend the life of the painting. Doing the highly technical work of a conservator yourself invariably leads to disaster and an early death for your treasured object. Conservators can cost a great deal, but they do not always have to. Calling on a painting conservator for advice and an estimate can lead to acceptable long-term preservation without the great expense that must be spent to preserve the world's greatest masterpieces. The following suggestions are meant to prevent further serious damage to paintings, not to reverse damage that has already been done.

Environmental Damage

Perhaps the single most important thing that you can do to protect your painting at home is not to have the air conditioner (in summer) or heater (in winter) running during the day and then turned off at night (or vice versa). The extreme fluctuation of temperature and humidity caused by on-and-off cooling or heating systems will cause severe damage to the paint layer of an art work and to its frame fairly quickly. High humidity and temperature also accelerate oxidation (chemical breakdown) in all materials, shortening their life.

Temperatures in your home should be kept between about 65° and 75°, with a relative humidity (RH) of about 40% to 60%. Mold grows when the RH climbs above 70%. Mold sends tendrils down into the materials to which they are attached, making your painting more porous and more vulnerable to further damage.

Painting Image

Do not display a painting in direct sunlight, which contains ultraviolet radiation, the same source of energy that gives you a suntan. It will darken the varnish, and fade and crack the paint layer and ground over time. In addition, do not store paintings in humid basements or hot attics unless absolutely necessary. If you do, look for ways of dehumidifying basements and getting cool air to circulate in hot attics.

Airborne Pollution

Airborne particles, particularly soot, have an oily component that allows them to bind more tightly to a painting's surface. Oil particles from the kitchen can and do travel to adjacent rooms.

Physical Damage

When you dust, use a soft cotton cloth (on the frame only) such as diaper cloth and a soft bristle brush for the painting surface and recessed areas of frames. Do not use cleaning sprays (such as Pledge, ™ Endust,™ or glass cleaners), especially if the frame is gilded. Never dust a painting that has flaking paint or where the paint layer is separating from its ground (tenting).

When moving a painting, always prepare a pathway and a place to set down the picture before you begin the move. When you are hanging a picture with an especially heavy frame, hang it from two hooks on the back of the frame, rather than from a single wire.

Do not display pictures where people might be swinging umbrellas, canes, hats, or handbags. If you put a picture over the fireplace, expect that sometime in the future it will get smoke over it; if you put it near to a serving table that has steaming hot food right next to it, expect that food stains and odors will start to become a part of your painting. If you hang a painting in the bathroom, the extra humidity from showers and baths will give mold and mildew a good chance to take over the picture surface. Avoid storing or exhibiting paintings near air vents or water pipes. Any accident to or leak in your system could be catastrophic to your paintings.

Do not attempt to clean a painting or a gilded frame yourself. Home remedies such as coating with linseed oil, or rubbing with bread or an onion, can cause irreversible damage. Even the correct cleaning materials can cause damage when used incorrectly.

Painting Image

For Assistance

To locate a conservator in your area, the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works offers a referral service. The institute may be contacted at 1717 K Street, N.W., Suite 301, Washington, D.C. 20006; (202) 452–9545.

Suggested Reading

For further information, look for the following books at your local library or bookseller. Some books may be obtained through interlibrary loan.

  • Carr, Dawson W., and Mark Leonard. Looking at Paintings: A Guide to Technical Terms. Malibu, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1992.
  • Keck, Caroline K. A Handbook on the Care of Paintings. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, 1965.
  • O’Reilly, Priscilla. Preservation Guide 3: Paintings. New Orleans: Historic New Orleans Collection, 1986.
  • Snyder, Jill. Caring for Your Art. New York: Allworth Press, 1990.
  • Stout, George. The Care of Pictures. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1975.

Disclaimer: The Museum of Florida History does not assume risk or obligation in recommending the care of paintings. All care and cleaning is done at the risk of the owner.