I love watching Antiques Roadshow. Gleefully hopeful people bring in their family heirlooms, antiquing finds and favorite tchotchke in the hopes that they’ll be told it’s worth a ton more than they acquire it for. The part that kills me are when the appraiser says, “If it were in better condition, it would be worth about $30,000 but because it’s yellowed and there are creases in the corner of this weaving…” Then the person sheepishly admits that their grandmother’s piece has been, “sitting in the basement by the water pump for the last thirty years.” I shudder just thinking about it. Even if you’re not sure what it’s worth, there are a few simple steps to ensuring the life of your art and objects on the off chance that it is actually worth something.
Works in oil are finicky. Whether they’re painted on canvas, wood, panel or even paper, there are a lot of things to look for with this highly effective and delicate medium. You can tell a work is done in oil if it has a sheen to the paint. (Acrylic can also give off a shiny reflection but oil is not as consistent as each color has it’s own properties). Now smell it. Oil has a tinny, warm odor that takes months, and sometimes years to dissipate. Paintings should be kept away from drafty areas and humid places in the home where the temperature fluctuates drastically, such as the foyer or mud room where a door opens frequently as this may cause the canvas or board to warp and the paint surface to crack. They should also be kept out of direct sunlight as it deteriorates the chemical make up of the paint.
Some oil paintings are done with a knife or have a lot of texture or impasto dust and debris can collect into crevices over time. Don’t ever attempt to clean this with a wet cloth, napkin, Windex or any other type of chemical cleaner — ever. Nix on the duster too, that’ll only make the situation worse and may cause bits of the paint to chip off. This goes for all mediums of art including works under glass. I’ll get to that later. An oil painting, if it means something to you, should be cleaned by a professional conservator. Locally, you can contact Celina Berenfeld at the Art Conservation Laboratory of Michigan, a trained and licensed conservator in all types of art.
Because acrylic paint dries into a water-based plastic, more resilient and pliable than oil, it’s slightly more forgiving than its oil-based counterpart. That said, temperature and humidity can also play a part on warping the canvas or board and will contribute to deterioration of paint over time, albeit a bit more slowly. Like oil paintings, if you notice that over time, the color has dulled, or if you have a smoker in the house, it’s very likely that a layer of dirt has accumulated on the surface. The only way to treat this is to have it professionally cleaned. Please, do not attempt to clean it yourself!
Some of my clients’ most favored pieces have been in the powder room. I can’t tell you the number of times, I’ve perched over a commode to peer at a print or watercolor. Bathrooms make precious little nooks for pieces that, shall we say, require a lot of attention or put the “sitter” at ease. For a 1/2 bath (just a toilet and sink), hanging art is fine. Even if it’s under glass, there’s little chance of splashing water on to the surface. The larger issue is a work framed under glass in an area of the home where humidity fluctuates or there’s enough steam that condensation could collect underneath the glass.
If your piece was hermetically sealed by a professional framer, there’s a good chance that your piece is not safe to hang in a full bathroom (where you shower/bathe). Even if you don’t see water droplets collecting under the glass, over time, microscopic amounts of water reach the paper and it begins to react to the moisture by growing tiny dots of mold. When you see yellow or green dots around the edge of paper over time, this is called foxing and it can only be chemically stabilized by a professional.
Unless there are really no other options, storing art in the basement is a bad idea. No matter where you store your work, remember to package it in case of flood or a leak. For canvases and pieces framed under glass, I suggest cutting a piece of corrugated cardboard to size and placing it on the face of the work. The exception is if the piece has heavy paint and the cardboard may leave an imprint or chip it. Then, with a large plastic sheet (garbage bags work great), wrap the piece with the cardboard snugly, tucking all sides in. Tape it securely and place it upright on a surface that’s high enough off the ground that it’ll stay dry.
Storing large works is a bit trickier. If you have access to them, paletts can be purchased inexpensively and some times are given away by lumber yards. (This is a must to place on the ground if you have to store in the basement, giving you a few inches of safety net in case of flooding). For storing large canvases, stand them straight up, not stacked on top of each other. Leaning a painting up against a wall at an angle may cause the wood to warp and the painting to become cockeyed. Make sure that all corners touch the wall surface they’re being stored against. If you don’t have plastic sheeting large enough to cover the canvases, use cotton bedsheets. Face the first two paintings to each other with a sheet in between. Place the next painting back side to back side. Now with that painting facing out, put a sheet in between and place the next painting face side in, repeat.
These are just tips to get you started. Every piece has its own set of needs and maintenance issues and some (like posters and reproductions) are simply there to look pretty and make you happy! Hang up what you enjoy and the rest will fall into place. Let me know if you have questions and happy art shopping!