Caring for Oil Paintings

Paintings and their frames are made of many different materials.

These include varnish, paint, glue, canvas, wood, metal, gilding and plaster.

Together they form a complex structure that is easily damaged if mishandled. These materials can also be affected by the surrounding environment, extremes and changes in humidity and temperature and excessive amounts of light, dirt and condensation.

A paintings survival over time depends on:

A sympathetic environment allied with sensible handling, storage and display

Problems which may arise:

  • Tears, punctures and holes, sagging canvas, bulges and dents, split canvas edges
  • Splits warps and cracks in the wood.
  • Insect damage (woodworm etc.):
  • Cracked, loose or flaking paint, lost paint, fading, yellow varnish, dirt and dust, whitening, mould or mildew on the surface and disintegrating frames.


  1. If you think your painting has a problem or you want to find out more about its condition contact a paintings conservator.
  2. Save any pieces that have fallen off, however small. Keep them safely in a bag or an envelope as they can nearly always be replaced.
  3. Do not attempt any repair or cleaning yourself. This is a skilled process and should only be carried out by a fully skilled conservator.
  4. The use of backboards is recommended as a crucial preventative conservation measure.

Moving your painting

Tears, holes, scratches and dents are most likely to happen when your painting is off the wall. If you plan ahead, these damages can usually be avoided. If you are decorating, store the painting out of the room before beginning work.

Make sure you have somewhere to put your painting before you move it:

When off the wall rest face out against a clear wall or padded surface, away from doorways, furniture and passing people;

Always make sure your hands are very clean and dry, or wear clean gloves;

Make sure the painting is securely fitted into frame;

When carrying your painting have it facing towards your body and use both hands. one to hold the edge and the other to support it from beneath;

Paintings with glass or those with fancy frames can be heavy, you may need two people.

Hanging your painting

Most of the materials in a painting respond to changes in relative humidity and temperature by expanding and contracting. If the relative humidity keeps altering then the painting continually expands and contracts, the structure is stressed and will begin to fall apart – paint layers crack, canvas tears, splits, wood splits and paint will flake off.

In a museum, we can control the environment with air conditioning but this is not usually an option in the home.

When choosing a good place to hang your painting it is worth considering the following points:

During the summer in Britain, the conditions in a well-ventilated room are fairly good for paintings.

In the winter months, however, the central heating in homes really dries out the air and causes problems. Rooms that suffer from damp will have high humidity – dampness encourages mould or mildew.

Light and dirt also cause problems. Too much light can fade certain colours and will speed up the darkening of varnish, the more light the faster this happens. Dirt looks unsightly and may be very acid. Acid will speed up the breakdown of canvas and wood making it very brittle and vulnerable to knocks and blows.