Caring for, cleaning, and properly storing art is key to preserving it for years to come. From oil paintings to collectible prints, improper care can lead to damage and deterioration over time. Following best practices and preventative maintenance is essential for art collectors, galleries, museums and anyone who wants their art investment to stand the test of time.
Knowing Your Art Medium
The first step in proper art care and handling is understanding what mediums and materials were used to create the piece. Common art mediums include:
- Oil paint – Created by mixing pigments with oils like linseed or walnut. Oil paints dry slowly, allowing the artist to blend colors directly on the canvas.
- Acrylic paint – A fast-drying synthetic polymer paint that can be diluted with water. Acrylics dry to a plastic-like finish.
- Watercolor – Paints made with pigments suspended in a water-soluble vehicle. Watercolors are more delicate and prone to fading if not properly cared for.
- Pastels – Pure pigment sticks that come in soft, hard, and oil varieties. Pastels create a powdery finish that can smudge if not sealed.
- Charcoal – Pure carbon drawings that leave dusty, powdery residue. Charcoal is vulnerable to smudging and needs to be sealed.
- Printmaking – Prints created through etching, lithography, screen printing, etc. Each process uses different inks that require specialized care.
- Sculpture – 3D works carved from mediums like stone, clay, metal, glass, and wood. Surface finishes and structural stability need monitoring.
Knowing the medium helps determine the ideal display conditions, handling methods, and cleaning supplies for the art. This prevents well-intentioned but damaging care techniques. Consult an art appraiser to identify mystery mediums.
Ideal Display Conditions
The right environmental conditions preserve artwork and prevent premature aging. Ideal display parameters include:
- Avoid direct sunlight which causes fading, darkening, and brittleness.
- LED bulbs have a visible light spectrum ideal for displaying art.
- Low UV lighting reduces fading for sensitive mediums like pastels.
- Limit light exposure to 50 lux for watercolors and prints.
- Oil paintings can better withstand higher 150 lux exposures.
Temperature & Humidity
- Ideal ranges are 68°-77°F and 45%-55% humidity.
- Prevent fluctuations beyond a 5°F change in 24 hours.
- Use HVAC systems and humidifiers/dehumidifiers to maintain stability.
- Hygrometers monitor humidity. Thermometers monitor temperature.
- Particulates, pollution, smoke, and ozone speed chemical aging.
- HEPA air filtration reduces damaging particles.
- Place art away from air vents, fireplaces, and cooking areas.
- Mice, insects, and parasites are attracted to paper, wood, and natural fiber canvases.
- Routinely inspect for early signs of infestation. Look for droppings and casing.
- Use tightly sealed frames.
- Place sticky traps and monitor for activity.
- Use archival-safe preventatives like freezing or anoxic treatment for serious issues.
Maintaining the ideal display environment requires monitoring and equipment, but prevents costly restoration down the line.
Proper Art Handling Techniques
Oils and other media can take months or even years to fully cure and harden. In the meantime, they are vulnerable to smudging, creasing, and other physical damage from improper handling. Follow these tips:
- Avoid touching the painted surface. Only handle art by the edges, frame, or back mounting.
- Make sure hands are clean and oil-free before handling. Cotton gloves add extra protection.
- Do not expose oil paintings to bending or flexing which can crack the paint surface. Transport and store paintings laying flat.
- Allow adequate ventilation around pieces to prevent condensation.
- Use matboard backing and tissue interleaving to prevent friction damage during transport.
- Frame pastels, charcoals, and fragile works on paper under UV glass before display.
- Let paper works fully dry after inscription and repairs before handling.
- Support heavy sculpture and bulky framed pieces from the bottom during carrying. Engage help for large items.
- Do not stack or lean art against other pieces or walls.
Careful handling prevents smudging, breaks, punctures, scratches, frame damage, and other issues that negatively impact value. Be mindful of proper techniques during transport, cleaning, installation, and routine dusting.
Choosing Suitable Framing
Framing plays an important protective role while also augmenting display. Frames should be:
- Non-abrasive and acid-free – Avoid wood frames with oak, pine, and other acidic woods that interact with the art. Use conservation-grade metal or wood frames with acid-free liners and backings.
- Tight fitting – The art should fit snugly inside the frame to prevent sliding and rubbing. Frame packages sized specifically for the art dimensions.
- Sealed – Seal the package edges with tape for an added vapor barrier. For extras sensitive works, seal the frame package with a UV-filtering acrylic sheet.
- Mirrored against sunlight – Glass or plexiglass with UV-resistant and anti-reflective coatings helps protect light-sensitive art. Place frames out of direct sun.
- Properly mounted – Use acid-free, archival quality mounting boards and mats. Never use foam core or self-adhesive boards which degrade over time.
- Equipped with hanging hardware – D-rings and aircraft cable offer a more secure hanging system than hooks and wire. Maps and heavy pieces need added support.
For ornate vintage frames, have a professional conservator inspect for toxicity issues and refinish with archival standards. Swap worn, outdated frames for quality, protective ones.
Care During Cleaning & Maintenance
Regular light dusting and maintenance protects artwork and removes environmental pollutants before they have a chance to degrade surfaces. Follow these safety measures when cleaning:
- Do test patches first, especially on older, delicate, or porous surfaces.
- Use microfiber cloths that trap particles without abrasion. Change cloths frequently to prevent redepositing grime.
- Clean from the top down and center outward using gentle, circular motions.
- Never rub or scrub hard which can damage surfaces.
- Keep moisture and liquids away from artwork unless specifically allowed for the medium.
- Use compressed air, soft horsehair brushes, or a conservation vacuum for loose particulates.
- Wipe frames with slightly damp, diluted dish soap and dry immediately after cleaning.
- Spot clean mats and mountings. Replace if soiled or degraded.
- Rinse rags frequently in deionized water to prevent cross-contamination.
- Allow cleaned pieces to fully dry in a dust-free area before re-framing or displaying.
Check for signs of deterioration like flaking, yellowing, darkening,clouding, cracks, mold, or pest damage during cleaning sessions. Address issues immediately before they worsen.
Proper Art Storage Techniques
Art not currently on display still requires safe storage conditions. Follow these tips:
For canvas paintings:
- Store flat and evenly supported to prevent buckling. Do not lean against other art or walls.
- Wrap and separate pieces with acid-free tissue paper if stacking is necessary. Limit stack height.
- Use A-frame easel racks to conveniently store multiple paintings while preventing contact.
- Place wax paper or glassine between the canvas and frame package backing for an extra barrier.
- Have storage spaces climate controlled for ideal temperature and humidity.
For unframed paper art and prints:
- Always mat and back works on paper, even in storage.
- Use archival cardboard print tubes or portfolio boxes designed for storage.
- Each piece should have a protective tissue interleaving and be separated from other items.
- Flat file cabinets and print racks offer convenient vertical storage.
For 3D sculpture and glasswork:
- Wrap or cushion delicate appendages with acid-free foam or batting.
- Use furniture blankets or bubble wrap to line shelves and prevent surface scratches.
- Place wax paper between items to reduce friction and abrasion damage.
- Avoid overstacking fragile materials.
- Store like materials together: wood with wood, ceramic with ceramic, etc.
With proper preventative storage, artwork can wait safely in the wings until its next viewing.
Working With Art Professionals
Caring for and preserving irreplaceable art requires experience and expertise. Art collectors can prolong the life of their collections by partnering with professionals for:
- Appraisals – Accurate valuation and documentation for insurance and resale. Experts can properly identify and describe all marks, mediums, equipment, framing, and damage issues.
- Conservation – Complex restoration and repairs requiring special techniques and materials. Conservators stabilize deteriorating artwork and safely remove aging cracks, grime, discoloration, and failed past repairs. Their meticulous work extends the lifespan of damaged art.
- Custom framing – Framing for display, transport, and storage. Experts select suitable framing materials and build customized packages to best protect each piece.
- Installation – Handling art transportation, conditioning, humidity control equipment, lighting design, and security. Museum curators leverage installation experts to create an optimal display environment.
- Inventory management – Documenting details and managing records for insurance and appraisal purposes. Accurate records also help monitor for signs of deterioration over time.
- Climate control – Designing heating, cooling, humidification and air filtration systems to maintain the ideal art environment. This specialty discipline is essential for galleries and museums.
- Security – Executing protections like alarm systems, guards, fireproof storage, climate monitors, and CCTV. Additional hands-on security like couriers may be needed for high-value collections.
Protecting cherished art requires knowledge and care. Partnering with qualified experts maximizes preservation for the future.
Implementing a Preventative Art Maintenance Plan
Preventative maintenance is essential to extend the life of treasured artworks. Experts recommend these routine care tasks:
- Examine art monthly for signs of deterioration, damage, mold, infestation, and other issues needing immediate attention.
- Monitor and log temperature, humidity, and light conditions in display and storage areas monthly to catch fluctuations.
- Professionally clean and re-frame oil paintings every 2-3 years. More frequent care is needed for sensitive mediums.
- Annually inspect storage and display areas for leaks, pests, or other concerns affecting art health and safety.
- Have protective equipment like HVAC and security systems tuned up by technicians annually.
- Re-install hanging systems and tighten frames every 2 years to prevent vibrations and slack.
- Consider preventative conservation every 5-10 years including varnishing, surface cleaning, and backing repairs.
- Update appraisals every 3-5 years to align insurance policies with current market values.
- Upgrade to archival quality frames, mounts, backings and storage containers every 5-10 years as materials age.
- Reproduce a digital backup of collection inventory annually including photos, condition details, and appraisals. Keep records in climate controlled storage.
With vigilance and care, art collections can be appreciated now and preserved for generations to come. Protecting artistic legacies is a privilege and responsibility for all collectors.
Frequently Asked Questions About Caring for Artwork
How can I tell if a frame is archival quality?
Look for frames labeled “museum grade”, “conservation grade”, or “archival”. The frame, metal, wood, backing, and mounting materials should be acid-free and passed the Photographic Activity Test. Reputable brands like Crescent, Nielsen, and Tru Vue offer safer options.
What type of lighting is best for displaying my artwork?
LED lighting is ideal for displaying art. The visible light spectrum closely approximates natural daylight while generating less heat and UV radiation than halogen and incandescent lights. Place lights on dimmers to control brightness.
Is it safe to use glass cleaner and window wash on my framed artwork?
No. The surfactants and ammonia in glass cleaners can leak through frame edges and damage artwork. Use a microfiber cloth lightly moistened with deionized water. Dry the glass immediately to avoid pooled moisture seeping inside.
How do I clean an oil painting?
Improper cleaning can permanently damage an oil painting. Have professional conservators handle more than extremely light surface dusting. They use appropriate solvents, customized cleaning techniques, and methods to re-varnish and stabilize the paint film without abrasion.
What temperature and humidity levels are ideal for storing oil paintings?
Oil paints remain most flexible and durable when storage humidity is kept between 45% to 55% RH and temperatures are stabilized between 68°F to 77°F. Avoid fluctuations beyond five degrees over a 24-hour period.
How often should I get my artwork appraised?
Reputable appraisers recommend updating the valuations for your entire collection every 3 to 5 years. Insurance coverage, probate/estate planning, donating to museums, and preparing for sale or auction are common reasons for an updated appraisal.
What is the best way to store drawings and prints?
Always frame or place loose prints and drawings inside archival-quality boxes or portfolio cases. Interleave each print with a sheet of acid-free tissue. Avoid rolling canvas prints. Store flat in map drawers or print cabinets. Follow museum framing standards before displaying.
How do I safely move a large painting?
Large paintings need special care to prevent flexing and avoid paint cracking/flaking. Transport paintings laying flat whenever possible. Carry canvases Vertically by the rear frame bar and side rails. Consider hiring art installation professionals and couriers for oversized pieces. Use A-frame easels and rolling carts for the studio.
Caring for your art collection requires diligence, research, and care. Understand the vulnerability of each medium and customize displays with proper framing, lighting, environmental conditions. Handle pieces gently. Use archival materials for framing, mounting, and storage. Clean only as needed using safe techniques. Work with qualified professionals for appraisals, conservation, high-end custom framing, and installations. Implement a routine preventative maintenance plan. With the right care, you can preserve works of art for generations to come.