Artworks can go into storage for numerous reasons, whether this is short-term or long-term, due to house renovations, security, a change of display or shipping. Due to the high monetary and sentimental value of oil paintings, certain precautions need to be taken to ensure their safety during this precarious time.

Although age can affect the fragility of an oil painting, even contemporary pieces need to be considered when deciding on correct storage. Often, both the structural and aesthetic components of oil paintings are naturally susceptible to environmental damage, such as mould and insect infestation. Their thin surface is at risk of physical stress, with overly tight wrapping causing canvases to warp, or dents being caused from uneven surfaces over long periods of time. These hazards can harm the painting in secondary ways; a severely damaged painting has a loss of monetary and aesthetic value, resulting in a high insurance claim.

There are various steps to follow to ensure that paintings are not put into any unintentional peril once removed from a wall, avoiding the potentially high cost of any trauma to the piece. We outline some best-practice guidance so oil paintings can be properly preserved when in storage.

5 ways to avoid damage during storage

1. Assess the artworks and their frames before storage

Before the oil painting goes into storage, it is recommended that an assessment is carried out to make sure that there are no risks of deterioration from sources which are already present. As these are sometimes hidden dangers, an expert opinion is recommended – particularly for artworks with value.

Mould growth or pests within the canvas or its frame need to be addressed before storage, as this issue can spread further. If left upon a stored painting, mould spores or insects can destroy the artwork and even affect other pieces which are stored nearby.

Paintings with a heavily cracked or flaking paint layer should be examined and restored before storage. This will ensure that no further loss of paint occurs whilst they are away from view. Restoration of the painting before storage will ensure it is preserved in its best possible condition, with a lowered risk of damage. Cracking or flaking paint can be exacerbated with movement and changes in climate conditions. If a painting with severe flaking paint is wrapped, when it is subsequently unwrapped, this loose paint will likely have stuck to the packaging materials and require extensive work to consolidate and secure it.

2. Assess the storage area

The storage area should meet certain criteria to avoid damp and mould. A humidity level of 45% with a temperature of 18-20ºC is ideal, as this is a museum standard. For works on paper, such as engravings and watercolours, 15-18ºC is best with humidity not more than 45%. It is important to assess the space for risk of damp or water intrusion.

Furthermore, check the area for pests, woodworm and other insects which might contaminate the artwork while they are in storage. The area should be checked at monthly intervals to monitor any changes. Holes, where rodents may enter, should also be blocked off, as they can potentially bite through packaging into the canvas or paper, causing damage. Their urine is also acidic and this can slowly degrade the artwork.

We often receive artworks that have been damaged/affected due to the inappropriate environment of the storage facility. This damage is primarily related to mould and mildew and exposure to water, often resulting in claims which in some cases could have been easily avoided.

3. Wrap with appropriate materials

Oil paintings should be kept in their frames and on their canvas stretcher where possible. It is not advisable to roll the canvas, as this causes stress to the paint layer and can produce cracking, followed by paint loss.

When wrapping the artwork, the first layer should be a material such as Tyvek (which is PH neutral and inert), before adding bubble wrap (bubble texture facing outwards so as not to cause impressions on the artwork). It should be ensured that the corners have protection in place, this can be made from cardboard or foam.

A painting should not be wrapped tightly, as this might cause the canvas to warp and put extra strain on the piece. It may also make it harder to safely unwrap in the future. The artwork should be wrapped securely, but without too much pressure.

Oil paintings should be placed in a wooden box or crate, built to the dimensions of the specific artwork. This is most important for very heavy or highly delicate pieces, such as those with impasto.

Contemporary artworks and those recently created that may not yet be fully dried need additional care and attention. It is often the case that inappropriate materials, such as blankets, are used to wrap such pieces resulting in those materials bonding to the paint layer.  This can cause issues such as wool fibres from the blankets being stuck onto the surface, leading to losses when trying to remove it. This can result in insurance claims and sometimes disputes as to who is liable.

4. Position securely against a flat surface

If there is not a custom box or crate for the painting to stand securely within, it can be stored between two pieces of strong cardboard or wooden panels to avoid accidental damage. As long as the painting is flat and away from any hazards or uneven pressure, it can be placed upright or laid down with the painted side facing up.

5. Maintain the storage conditions

The longevity of the painting is dependent on the environmental factors of the storage space being properly maintained. As long as these conditions are met, the risk of damage during storage is significantly reduced. Check the area frequently for any changes, as mould and other infestations can sometimes occur rapidly if unnoticed.

If artworks are of value, consider art-specific storage so that the chances of damage are significantly reduced.

If we can be of assistance with reviewing artwork and the glazing options to ensure the greatest protection, please contact us for further advice.