“A thing of beauty is a joy forever“ so says the poet John Keats. But permit us to disagree for a moment when it comes to paintings. More often, a painting is a joy for only a few years, maybe not even a lifetime. Paintings will crack. Their colors will fade. Their varnish will darken. And your painting, wonderful as it is, will at some point be a shadow of the beauty that it is now. The artist’s claim to immortality is, unfortunately, imperilled from the very start. Paintings are terribly fragile things. A dent here, a thumbmark there, a scratch or worse, a tear, while it is being moved can often destroy a wonderful work in a matter of seconds. And there are other factors at play, some so imperceptible that it takes years before one can see their effects. Drastic changes in relative humidity, too much light, and pollution can make your paintings crack, fade or darken. So, what can you do if you think your artwork is your bid for immortality? How can you make your paintings last to almost forever?
Here are a few practical pointers to prolong the life of your paintings:
- Do prime your canvases, boards, wooden panels or other supports before you make your art on them with a coat of gesso or white latex paint
The canvas, board or wooden panel that you are painting on is a hygroscopic surface. That means that it absorbs moisture from the air. Depending on the amount of moisture in the air, it would expand or contract accordingly. The ground and paint layers are also hygroscopic. But the amount of contraction or expansion is often different from that of the canvas, board or wooden panel. The differences in the rate of expansion and contraction between the different layers cause your paintings to crack. Cracks sometimes become so severe that they form networks of cracks and cause the painting to flake and lose the paint layer over time. Some other studies point that chemical aging is accelerated by high humidity. Mold growth which damages the artwork is also spurred by high humidity. The Philippines has a very humid environment. It is of utmost importance for artists to protect their paintings against high humidity and humidity fluctuations. You will not know where they will end up. The best way for your paintings to be preserved is for you to give them a better chance from the moment you make them.If you are using boards or wooden panels, it is best to coat at least two times the front, sides and back for better protection. Be sure to have each layer dry first before applying the succeeding layer. Each layer takes about three days at least to really dry out. If you are anticipating that you will make a lot of paintings, better start priming in order to have a good supply of good boards and panels.
If you are using canvas, the gesso is actually what makes the paint stick to the canvas as well as protect the paint from humidity seeping through the canvas. Applying several layers of gesso is like laying the foundation for your art. Be sure your foundations are stable. Apply several layers of gesso to ensure that you have a smooth and stable surface. Apply each layer only after the previous layer has dried. Apply the gesso or the primer when the artwork is already stretched over your board, wooden panel, stretcher or strainer. The gesso or primer might crack if you apply it to the canvas before you stretch it. This might cause cracks on your painting as well.
- Do use a rigid support
The oldest paintings in the world are simple cave paintings – pictures made from mineral pigments on rock walls. Some of these are estimated to be at least 10,000 years old! Recent studies show that the more stable the support, the better the paintings will keep. Again this has to do with the contraction and expansion of materials due to humidity. If you are going to use a stretcher or a strainer, make sure to put a backing board behind the exposed back. This serves as a way to keep the canvas from absorbing too much moisture from behind as well as protecting your work from impact from this side when it is being moved from place to place. Remember, the more protection you put from behind – the backing board, the gesso or priming – the safer it will be for your painting. One good idea that many artists who make big works use to ensure that their canvases remain taut and do not sag is by stretching their canvas over a strainer covered with plywood or panel. This really offers good structural protection. Just remember to prime it all over with latex at least two times to ensure that the acids and aldehydes from the wood do not creep into the canvas and your painting. These substances which are in the wood and the coatings that are present in them are harmful to your paintings as well. Priming keeps them away from your works.Some techniques are also unsuitable to flexible supports like canvas. When using heavy impastos (thick paint) or when using tempera or other brittle paints like casein paint, it is better to use wood panels, boards or masonite – just remember to prime them!
- Do observe your paints and materials
Different colors of paint react differently to the environment. This is mainly because of the pigments and binders used in making them. Paint is actually pigment in a binder. For oil paints, the binder is oil. For acrylic paint, the binder is an acrylic emulsion. For watercolours and gouaches, the binder is a gum – like gum arabic. For tempera, it is often egg yolk but it could also be honey or animal glue. Most organic binders such as egg in tempera or casein in casein paint can grow molds if it does not dry fast or has absorbed too much moisture from the air. Some pigments made from organic materials like soot also can be suitable for mold growth. This is why some colors tend to grow molds than other paints.Some pigments need a lot more oil than others. Cadmium yellows and reds have more oil in them and usually dry within five days while titanium white and ultramarine dry within a day because of their lesser oil content. The advice “fat over lean” – which means using the faster drying oils as underlayers and putting the slower drying oils has to do with the drying properties of oil paints. Using faster drying oils on top of slower drying oils will cause the paint layers to crack over time. Too much oil in the paint will lead to wrinkling or yellowing. Sometimes, an artist will put sand, sawdust, metallic objects or other things that would make the artwork convey his or her vision. Some of these materials might rust, degrade or cause the artwork to sag or tear. A good artist is as much a creator as well as technician. The artist should really take note of how his or her materials react with each other and use these observations to his or her advantage.
- Do varnish your work
Varnishes aren’t just to make your paintings pretty. They are important layers that protect your painting from the damaging effects of too much light, dust, dirt, molds, high humidity and pollution. Many 18th century church paintings have darkened varnish which had protected the underlying paint over the centuries. The darkened image is really just on the varnish. The varnish can be removed to show the underlying paint layers still in good condition, and the artwork can be revarnished again. There are lots of varnish finishes now. Varnished artworks need not be glossy. They can be matte or in satin finish. Without the varnish, the paint layers will be easily damaged by the elements.
- Do have it framed well
The frame is not just to highlight the beauty of your painting. If it is made properly, it serves an equally important function of providing protection to your artwork. If it is done improperly, it could spell the untimely destruction of your work. A lot of paintings and drawings have been damaged prematurely because framers have adhered them to boards with rubber cement or rugby. The intention of preventing the artwork from sagging by adhering them to a rigid support is a good intention but the method is undeniably harmful to the artwork. Rugby is very acidic. In less than a decade, the acids from the rugby would migrate to the canvas or paper and appear on the surface of the painting causing disfiguring brown spots. Over time, the brown spots will degrade the canvas or the paper and “eat through” the artwork. A good frame will provide a secure support to hang your artwork to a wall. The frame should also protect against sudden impacts and bumps. Hence it should be secure and well made. The joints should be secure. The frame should not be nailed on to the artwork. It should also have a backing that will seal off the back of the artwork to prevent too much humidity and protect against impact from behind. It should also not be directly in contact with the artwork’s surface. A spacer or barrier like a lining of felt or foam board should be provided between the artwork’s surface and the frame’s inner edges to protect the painting from being abraded when the painting is moved and carried around. The frame would also encase your artwork and protect it from direct handling, dirt, insects and pollution. Some frames could even protect against too much harmful ultraviolet light and from rapid fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity. Frames with glass offer more protection than those without, but it might cost more or it could affect the way the artwork is viewed and make the frame heavy. If you intend to transport the artwork, the glass could also break and harm your artwork. These things should also be considered. The frame is an important part of the artwork and the artist should spend time considering what frame his painting or drawing should have.
These are just a few tips which you, as an artist, could do to prolong your artwork’s lifespan. The artwork is a composite object made from many different parts that react to the environment in their own way. Collectively, how they react to the environment determines the longetivity of the work. Understanding these reactions could help one to think of ways to prolong the lifespan of the painting. Who knows, maybe with a little foresight and planning, your thing of beauty may just be your ticket to immortality. Who knows, with the right preparation, your thing of beauty might actually last to almost forever.
Ricky Francisco is a museum worker for a private art museum and an advocate of Preventive Conservation. His interests lie on material conservation research and the documentation of artworks. He has attended trainings locally and abroad to study about what can be done to protect works of art and other cultural heritage.