What to do if your oil painting becomes water damaged

Last week, we received an urgent email from one of our clients. Their painting had been stored in a cardboard box, waiting to be unpacked, when an accident left flooding in their home. 

The cardboard understandably did nothing to protect the artworks, and our client was very distressed. So what should you do if your painting becomes water damaged?

It’s a question we are frequently asked by concerned art collectors who have discovered a burst pipe or minor flood has come into contact with their artwork.

We’ve put together some helpful tips so if water damage ever happens, you know exactly how to act.

How artworks are handled immediately after the initial incident and before restoration is crucial. 

After the discovery of damage, artworks should be promptly removed from their hanging or storage place and laid flat on a clean surface so they can air. It is important for the moist area of the painting not to be in contact with anything

Blotting paper (or even kitchen towel), can be inserted between the canvas and the stretcher bars. As the wood of the stretcher bars dries slowly it will not keep introducing moisture to the canvas when the paper is added.

Placing the painting flat and face up will assist if the surface paint layer has started to crack and flake from water penetrating through the back of the canvas. Many paintings we receive have obtained damaged after being displayed on walls where water has travelled down from an upstairs bathroom. 

Artwork should be left to dry naturally and slowly while indoors. Keeping it uncovered is important for a number of reasons; placing in a bag can create a ‘microclimate’ for mould growth and wrapping in cloth or bubble wrap can adhere to a painting’s surface, leaving impressions and potentially lifting paint when removed.

After contact with water, the appearance of an artwork will alter. Consequently, when water seeps into the protective varnish layer blanching occurs, causing the painting to take on a frosty look. Although it’s tempting to try and ‘brush off’, minimal intervention to the surface is crucial. The same goes if you discover a water-damaged painting that has been in an attic or garage and is covered in mould. Brushing mould spores escalates the damage caused.

Of course, water-damage is often not ‘new’ but happened some time ago. The same advice applies: isolate artwork in a cool, dry and light environment, keep uncovered and separate from unaffected artworks. By removing artworks from unsuitable conditions and carrying out these key actions, the decontamination and restoration treatments will be less intensive, and therefore less costly. 

Acting quickly to engage restoration services is crucial, and our team can provide full advice for how your artwork should be best handled.

If you have a similar artwork that has suffered water damage and would like us to take a look, please contact us for our recommendations and a quote.

To know more about the signs of water damage, read our helpful article for more advice.

To see an example of how a water damaged painting can be restored, read our case study on Mrs Pownall’s painting.

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