Ricky Francisco explains how to conserve artworks at home

How to conserve artworks at home
By Walter Ang
May 5, 2010
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Saving your art begins even before you acquire it, noted collection management consultant Ricky Francisco. In a lecture on "Preventive Conservation for Artworks at Home," Francisco gave buyers and collectors basic tips on how to take care of their art pieces.

Major events like earthquakes, fires or flooding will do obvious damage. However, the environment is full of elements that gradually and incrementally affect artwork. Changes in temperature, light and humidity can cause an array of problems such as mold growth, corrosion and fading, among many others.

Man-made accidents and neglect also come into play. Even the creators of art can be held accountable if they use easily degradable materials (like frames made of wood that haven't been treated to protect it from mold growth) or if they neglect to have their paintings varnished (to provide a protective layer).

It can be argued that a museum set-up, where climate, movement, light and other factors are controlled, is the optimal environment for artwork, however, that would definitely defeat the purpose of, say, enjoying a painting in your kitchen (where soot, grime, heat and dirt are likely to come into contact with it).

The first order of business, said Francisco, is to evaluate a piece of art prior to acquiring it. What is the condition of the work and are you willing to commit to its upkeep? He pointed out that sentimental value, the maintenance work anticipated and the monetary value of art are all part of the equation. "If you're going to pass it on to future generations, you will have to take care of it," he said.

Once acquired, photo documentation is important. "If you go to a conservator and tell them the blue in your painting used to be bluer, it will open up many questions. How bluer? What shade of blue?" Francisco said. "A photograph of your artwork, while also subject to its own degradation, can assist a conservator in establishing a benchmark."

He recommends taking a photograph parallel to the artwork to minimize distortion and to print it out "as big as you can" to preserve details. He also recommends noting down details such as physical measurements and when the work was done. The date of creation can help provide clues to certain mediums an artist may have been likely to use if future restoration will need the information.

Transporting artwork also has its dangers. It's best to not wear jewelry or even belts with buckles that can possibly scratch the artwork. Use of gloves is best as hands may be sweaty or dirty. Sweat is acidic and fingerprints may show up after a few years from dirt accumulation if they don't leave their mark immediately.

Next, collectors have to identify the materials and mediums used. Francisco explained that a painting in itself is composed of many different materials that individually react in a different manner to the environment.

An oil painting left on the floor might somehow survive a flooding, but a watercolor will definitely be done for. The primer used in a painting might expand faster in heat than the actual paint layer, causing cracks.

Commonly used framing materials such as plywood, rugby, scotch tape are highly acidic and can cause paintings to brown, spot and even tear and crumble. "Ask for `conservation-quality framing' and ask for acid-free and lignin-free rag matting and buffered materials whenever possible," he said. "Proper framing enhances the aesthetic value of a painting and also provides rigidity and protection."

The easiest, though often looked over, step to protect an artwork is choosing a suitable location, noted Francisco. "You should be able to view and enjoy your paintings but it should be out of harm's way. It shouldn't be in the busy portions of the house where it could be bumped into accidentally," he said.

He noted other precautions that should be followed.

Avoid strong lighting
Both natural and artificial light contains ultraviolet light (UV) and infrared light (IR). UV deteriorates materials at the microscopic level causing varnish to cloud over, pigments to fade and even cloth or paper to tear and eventually crumble. IR causes heat that makes paint layers brittle and some varnishes and paints to brown.

Damage caused by light is irreversible. "Keep paintings away from direct sunlight as much as possible. Artificial lighting should be at least three feet away, turned off when not in use, and if possible, bounced off or shone indirectly," he said.

Avoid temperature and humidity changes
High humidity causes mold growth. Sudden changes in humidity may cause the rapid expansion of strainers and wooden supports that may damage the paint and the canvas layers. Temperature changes can also cause paints to crack or fade.

Avoid hanging paintings near doors and windows as these are areas where humidity fluctuates the most and in bathrooms, kitchens and dining halls, where there is generally high humidity. In airconditioned rooms, allow paintings to adjust by not turning on the coolest setting right away and by not opening windows when the unit is shut off.

"Outer walls, especially of older houses, often are not 100% waterproof. During the rainy season, moisture from the outside can seep through the walls. Inner walls are preferable to hanging your paintings," he said. "Ventilation and air circulation discourage mold growth. Put at least an inch of space between your wall and your painting."

Call for help
Maintenance should be done with caution and common sense. Horror stories were shared of paintings being cleaned with bleach and cleaning tools like mop handles being left propped up against paintings. "Brush off dust carefully using soft brushes such as those used for make-up. Do not use wet or damp materials," he said.

Store artwork in a clean, dry and dark area. Be sure rodents and insects won't be able to get in. Francisco shared that there are many materials commonly used for storage organization that are readily available in bookstores or art supply stores.

Foam boards should be placed in between paintings. "These will help absorb impact in case there is sudden movement. Remember to remove hooks and any metal portions in the frame to avoid rust and to remove the risk of them puncturing the paintings," he said. "If not available, even corrugated cardboard would be better than nothing. The idea is to cushion the works and to prevent paint transfer."

Glassine paper or mylar sheets, which are relatively acid-free, can be used as sleeves or to wrap artwork for storage or transport. The basic protection being provided here is avoiding dust accumulation. A major component of household dust is actually dead skin and hair cells as well as dirt from soil, all of which are organic and, therefore, food for molds to thrive on.

Collectors and owners should also know when it's time to stop playing hero and call in the calvary. "For tears, molds, flaking and damage from fire, it's best to bring your artwork to a conservator. Molds can be very tricky to clean off because inhalation of the spores is possible and it could lead to infection," he said.

Francisco has done work for The Lopez Museum, Yuchengco Museum, Ateneo Art Gallery, GSIS Museum and Vargas Museum. He was a lecturer of the International Centre for the Study of Preservation and Conservation of Cultural Property.

The lecture was part of the Art Program (managed by Art Cabinet Philippines) of The Picasso Boutique Serviced Residences, Makati City. Call 0928-550-4816 or email inquiry@artcabinetphilippines.com.

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