Oil paintings naturally have cracks on their surface, but it is when these are significant, raised or disturbing the artwork itself that they can become problematic for the long term health of the painting.
Why is my oil painting cracking?
Cracks form for various reasons, whether it be through old age, lack of canvas preparation or accidental damage. Cracks formed from the ageing process are generally thin or in a pattern reflecting the weave of the canvas, whilst those caused by lack of canvas preparation form while or after the paint has dried, often with large gaps forming. Fluctuations in heat or humidity might also cause further damage.
Sometimes older oil paintings have a surface with a fine pattern of hairline cracks. These are known as ‘craquelure’ and have been caused by the ageing process of the paint. This is due to an old style of canvas and depending on the style and era of the artwork can appear in different patterns. Often, the cracks form in the weave of the canvas beneath.
This can be a perfectly normal characteristic of an antique oil painting and a conservator will not be inclined to alter it unless there are significant areas of paint loss, as the cracks are very thin and contained. If there are deeper issues upon the surface, for example, the pigment lifting away from the canvas, this will need the specialist procedure mentioned below.
How to repair a cracked oil painting
A significantly cracked oil painting, leading to loss of paint should be professionally restored. Over time this surface can further deteriorate, leading to loss of paint and distortion of the painting.
The sooner oil painting cracks are resolved, the better the outcome for the artwork. Restoring before too much paint is lost also helps to preserve the integrity of the original painting, as it will have fewer areas to be carefully replaced by a professional conservator.
An oil painting conservator will first consolidate the flaking paint layer, making it stable. This can be a very time-intensive process, making sure that any areas are delicately re-adhered to the canvas.
Once consolidation has been completed, any lost paint can be replaced with careful touches of conservation grade pigment and a new layer of specialist varnish applied. The conservation-grade pigment is important, as it is not as drastic as using oil paint upon the artwork and can be reversed in the future if another restoration is needed. After restoration, the risk of further damage will cease and your oil painting will be preserved.