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What Can Happen to a Painting?

Paintings are fragile and changes are to be expected.  Many changes do not threaten the stability of a painting and are not considered damage.  Paintings generally do well in environmental conditions that are comfortable for people; the structural components of a painting can expand and contract in different ways as the surrounding temperature and humidity fluctuate. 

Natural damages happen slowly over time:

The physical components of an oil painting expand and contract in reaction to atmospheric conditions at different speeds and in unequal proportion, subjecting the painting to stress. Prolonged exposure to extremes of dryness, humidity, heat or cold with little air flow will make a painting susceptible to structural damage.

Visible stress is a result of unfavorable environmental or mechanical conditions that have developed over an extended period of time.  

A common sign of age is a darkened or yellowed surface caused by accumulated grime, nicotine, or discolored varnish.

  • Old varnish can be seen as a yellow or brown cast over the painted surface, obscuring the artist’s intended colors and the balance of light and dark. 
  • Grime accumulation can appear as a dull grey or brownish haze caused by soot, nicotine, or ambient dust and accretions on the surface.  Superficial grime can become imbedded in the paint film.  In some instances it can be difficult or impossible to remove.
  • Paintings displayed above a mantel will be exposed to soot, heat, and environmental extremes.
  • Exposure to direct sunlight or ultraviolet light will produce changes in the brilliance, hue, and balance of colors and will cause the paint to become brittle. Even the most permanent colors eventually will be affected by intense light. 

Some events in a painting's history may call for attention:

Excessive or deteriorating restorations may appear as areas of a different color or texture than the surrounding paint.

Physical damages can happen in a moment:

Physical damage is the most common form of damage to an oil painting. Because the painted surface is traditionally not behind glass, the painting is very vulnerable, especially in transit or storage.

Cleaning an oil painting should be handled by a professional. If your painting should become soiled with food, smoke or other substances, do not attempt to clean it yourself. When structural damages occur to a painting such as tears, flaking paint, cracks with lifting edges, or mold, consult a conservator to decide on possible courses of treatment.

Painting Damage Glossary Page