5 Common Conservation Questions Answered: Contemporary and Modern Paintings

Emilie Trice | January 4, 2021 (Updated August 31, 2021)

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Burton
Elizabeth Burton is a practicing Paintings and Preventive Conservator from Los Angeles. She studied Art History at UCLA as an undergraduate and received her MA in Preventive Conservation from Northumbria University. Elizabeth has worked with many museums in California and currently teaches for the Northern States Conservation Center through which she offers online courses for heritage preservation professionals.

Learn how to treat, repair, install and ship your artwork safely and effectively.

Conservation is critical to maintaining the lifetime and value of your artworks. But often collectors are left uneducated on how to properly handle and transport objects. This article offers answers to common conservation questions in regards to contemporary and modern paintings. Read on to start protecting and preserving your art collection with confidence.

Is bubble wrap okay to use for shipping?

Sadly, we see so much damage to the surfaces of paintings come from improper packaging and shipping. Even materials commonly used to pack art can cause problems if they are in poor condition or used inappropriately on a surface. For example, no wet or recently varnished painting (or one that reacts more easily than is typical to changes in climate) should be packaged with any type of material touching the surface, whether that be glassine or bubble wrap.

Furthermore, paintings which easily burnish or imbibe textures, e.g. matte paint layers or acrylics, should not come in contact with any type of packaging material. 

Bubble wrap can be particularly terrible because it has so many outward facing bumps that are intended to cushion, but can create an unwanted pattern on the surface of a painting, or can even pull paint or varnish up and off the surface. If this ever happens, either with bubble wrap or another packaging material like glassine, it should be left as is and delivered to a conservator who should be able to detach it. The full extent of damage to the paint or varnish layer, however, might not be understood until the packing material is removed. 

Keep shipment notes of proper packaging materials in a safe, secure and accessible place, like an online collection management system. That way you or someone acting on behalf of your art collection can properly ship your artwork, without damage. 

Will artists ever work with you on a treatment?

Yes! Conservators frequently work with living artists or the estates of artists who have passed away when developing a treatment. Some artists may provide treatment plans or other helpful documentation for say, replacing broken/lost pieces of an installation. This information is typically saved along with the artwork's condition report, and stored in an online art collection management system so that the information can easily be accessed when treatment is needed. 

Conservators also occasionally work in concert with other conservators, especially if the painting is on another substrate like ceramic or paper. This is more common among conservators who work for institutions like museums or other collections.

Conservators will work with artists when a painting has been damaged at a gallery. If the artist lives nearby, they can assist in person.

Artists will sometimes send conservators materials from their studio so that the conservator can add to areas of loss (carefully and under a microscope.) In other cases, artists will send exact formulations for inpainting, e.g. two parts titanium white to one part lamp black for the gray in their piece.

Conservators can also prepare a damaged surface for the artist to paint over post-treatment. This might mean consolidating cracked or friable paint, filling areas of loss or even removing liquified or putty-like paint that might smear in a way that was not the artist’s intention. The artist in these situations will receive the painting after treatment and paint over the stabilized areas of loss.

Other artists, however, do not wish to get involved in the restoration of their piece once it has been sold, and this is understandable. 

Photo credit: Matt Briney, Unsplash

Is it such a big deal to hang a painting over my fireplace or in my bathroom?

In short, yes. There are some differences in released heat, exhaust and particulate matter when comparing modern electric fireplaces with gas or wood-burning fireplaces, but in general, we recommend against hanging paintings, prints, sculptures, or ceramics above fireplaces. Paintings, especially those with multiple layers of paint and/or priming applied over a primary support which is later stretched over a secondary support, are particularly susceptible to changes in heat and relative humidity. Burning a traditional fire in a fireplace can reduce relative humidity swiftly just as it can cause indoor temperature to climb quickly.

Placing a painting right above the fireplace puts it in the “danger zone” so to speak. There is also always the danger that someone forgets to release the flue and soot, ash, smoke and flames fly up towards the painting. 

As for bathrooms, hanging a painting in a half bath or powder room might be fine—even without glass or plexi to encapsulate it—as long as it is far from sinks or toilets. However, a full bathroom (with a shower or bathtub, or both) frequently experiences high humidity and sometimes experiences dew point humidity, meaning moisture becomes condensation and sits on surfaces. You might notice this when moisture drips from the ceiling of your bathroom or forms on the counter surrounding the sink after a particularly steamy shower.

Frequent and wide-ranging fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity are dangerous for paintings, particularly those which are poorly bound to their substrate or which have multiple layers of paint which might each react differently to the fluctuations, causing stress and tension between each other. 

Is it always necessary or appropriate to remove the varnish from a painting during treatment?

Removing the varnish from a painting is common in conservation, but is neither always necessary nor always possible. Sometimes, a painting with a discolored varnish will have such friable or otherwise damaged paint that the paint must be consolidated before the varnish can be removed.

Other times, a painting might have been damaged in a limited way that can be treated without removing a perfectly stable and appropriate varnish. This is typicl when a painting was impacted by another object like a purse or umbrella, vandalized or dropped.

In some cases, removing the varnish will affect the paint layer if removed because an inappropriate coating was chosen. 

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Burton.

However, some paintings will have been varnished unnecessary by prior owners or gallerists charged with selling the pieces. In the past, some galleries requested all paintings be varnished to “liven them up," even plein air paintings which weren't typically varnished. Buyers and gallerists alike became accustomed at one point to all paintings being shiny and unctuous.

Today, the determination on part of a conservator to remove, keep, adjust or add a varnish will depend on their research into the artist’s technique, the need to address the varnish and the stability and reversibility of doing so.

What happens to paintings damaged beyond repair?

Some paintings damaged beyond repair, particularly those created by contemporary artists, will be destroyed. The conservator may be responsible for documenting and destroying the piece if this is the decided outcome. Such pieces are typically those damaged in a severe disaster like a flood, mudslide or fire.

In what I would consider rare cases, paintings are damaged beyond repair in transit. This is why I always encourage clients, and friends, to ship paintings purchased at auction with an art shipping company or at the very least with excellent insurance coverage by which the shipping company must pay for conservation treatment in the event of injury. 

In other cases, the owner will have the piece conserved and keep the painting, but will be asked to remove it from the artist’s oeuvre, which means having the artist’s name untied from the piece. This is more common when a large portion of the paint layer has been damaged beyond recognition or has detached completely without the possibility of consolidation and reattachment or reintegration. If the conservator must recreate large portions of the painting, even with reversible methods like watercolor over water soluble fill material next to oil paint or with original images of the work, the painting has lost a large amount of artist material and technique. 

In cases such as these, the artist may ask to have their name disassociated with the piece and the painting will likely never show up—in name or image—in texts or retrospectives. This situation may also occur if a prior conservation treatment was applied improperly and the painting was damaged or changed in a way that no longer matches the artist’s intention.

In some cases, however, damage will be done to a painting that cannot be undone now, but might be undone in the future. For instance, if a prior conservation treatment conducted by an untrained or overambitious “conservator” (often an artist or hobbyist) cannot be reversed due to use of “permanent” materials like oil paint on oil paint or shellac on a very fine surface, we sometimes recommend that the owner hold onto the piece and wait until the technology to address the issue has been developed. For investors hoping for a quick payout or those hoping to close out an insurance claim within a reasonable period of time, this is not a sound recommendation.

Want to learn more? We have more conservation advice in Top Conservation Tips Every Collector Should Know.


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