Updated: Aug 5, 2022
You've invested, and it's brought you an immense amount of joy. However, it doesn't quite shine like it used to. Its colors seem duller, maybe a crack or two, etc.
You've dusted and changed the lightbulbs only to find it's not just you. Your one-of-a-kind treasure is aging and not in a graceful way.
Long-term maintenance of your art collection can be a delicate and complex process, no matter how you go about it. It requires great skill and care, other-wise irreversible and damaging results could occur.
Pending how many times this process is completed, can cause equal damage.
So why chance it?
Put simply, it needs to be done. Human beings are amazing pieces of art, but trust me… If I didn't bathe for a week; things wouldn't be pretty. Same with the artwork.
The majority of artworks stored under glass, such as watercolors, graphite, ink, and charcoal, may not have a protective varnish like oils and acrylics, relying instead on the glass to protect the surface.
With oils and acrylics, pending the type of varnish used, the age can range from 10-100 years if you're lucky. Know that free radicals and exposure to heat and sunlight can harm the pigments and binders within the piece as a whole, causing it to break down quicker.
How do I know if it needs to be cleaned?
There are a few signs you can look out for to help determine if your varnish has served its function and needs to be redone.
If you find your paintings have a yellow tint or
generally seem to be darkening,
Chipping, peeling or flaking varnish
This is caused by many things. For example, the copper used in some older pigments discolors over time and through humidity exposure.
Another factor is the natural resins that protect against UV light break down over time and will leave a yellowed, discolored, or cloudy film over the surface.
If left too long, this discolored varnish cracks, allowing moisture to seep under, causing it to chip and the canvas to stretch and contract.
This flexing and stretching weakens the paint over time, and it'll flake right on off after the varnish is gone.
Another surprising culprit is too thin of a varnish layer or too few at the beginning. As the UV fighting particles break down over time, it's not wise for an artist to be stingy with the varnish.
Things to consider
The techniques and technology to complete these tasks are continually improving, so be cautious about which cleaning instructions you use, as some will also remove paint layers with the varnish.
Some paint layers flake off over time if a thorough understanding of the interactions between paint, solvent, and water wasn't properly understood when painted. Flaking occurs because of the weakened binders, swelling and shrinking of the fabric, etc.
Do not attempt to remove even a minor blemish from a painting, as inexpert attempts to clean may cause an even more unsightly spot, which may result in permanent damage.
You'll want to take the time and due diligence to take it to a conservator, where they can determine the varnish and original paint solubility. They can also use UV light tests to determine missing varnish layers, overpainting, surface accretions, etc.
Just remember that UV light is damaging, so you don't want to be all Willy-Nilly about it.
Where can I find a conservator?
The American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) maintains a list of qualified local conservators. Their website includes a "Find a Conservator" guide to help you narrow down the right person for your conservation needs.
You’ll want to check and see:
How long have they been in business/full-time or part-time?
Do they have any references or a before and after portfolio?
Do they have an area of specialty?
Is their degree in Conservation or Restoration?
Professional art restoration is relatively expensive, with $200-$300 rates per hour not unheard of. Yet, these are totally worth it for serious repairs and expensive artworks. They can clean your paintings, revarnish them, or touch them up. For old or damaged canvases, they can line, patch, or re-stretch them.
What if there is serious damage and a cleaning won’t do?
There are times when a simple dusting won’t do. Whether it be from accidental damage or natural aging, this is when an “Art Restorer” might suit your needs better?
What’s the difference?
Not a whole lot actually. They are both skilled at what they do, but have different principles of practice.
Conservators focus on stabilizing pieces, attempting to halt any further degradation.
They know that reparation technology is always improving, so their methods are centered around things that are reversible if needed.
Restorers focus on repairing pieces of work, restoring them as much as possible to the original. They operate with more permanent principles than their counterparts, where a repair will hopefully never be revisited.
Whether you require maintenance now or want to know what you should be on the lookout for, there's tons of information to gather on a piece when you purchase it, especially if acquiring it directly from the artist. They may even offer to restore it if they're trained in the area.
When possible, try to ascertain:
when and where it was last restored,
and what was done or used on the piece.
When in doubt, take it to a professional. There's no sense losing your one-of-a-kind treasure because mom said club soda does the trick.
Preventative measures go a long way in prolonging the life of your artwork. If you'd like to learn more about prolonging the lifespan of your collection, you should check out my blog, 7 Simple Steps to Lengthen the Life of Your Art, where you'll be surprised to learn how to avoid the little things that can have a huge impact.
I'd also love to send you my Checklist to Safely Hanging Your Art that will take into account things to be on the lookout for, when trying to lengthen the life of your art.