Fairs Conservation Switzerland

No longer glossing over the subject

The preservation of works made with synthetic paint is a hot topic

Picasso had a penchant for common house paints, while Pollock liked to use alkyd enamels

Until the mid-20th century, oil paint had been the medium for painters for more than 500 years. The widespread availability of modern synthetic paints after the Second World War heralded a new era of artistic expression in which artists looked to new types of paint, such as acrylics, as a means to express life in a rapidly changing world. “My opinion is that new needs need new techniques… It seems to me that the Modern painter cannot express this age, the airplane, the atomic bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own technique,” Jackson Pollock said in 1950.

The impact of these fast-drying synthetic paints on Modern and contemporary artistic practice cannot be overstated: from Picasso’s penchant for common house paints and Pollock’s use of alkyd enamels to Lichtenstein’s preference for Magna, a particular brand of solution acrylic paint, and Hockney’s adoption of acrylic emulsion paints when he moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s—the list of artists who have embraced these paints is impressive. Works in acrylics and the like are clearly in evidence at Art Basel, 63 years later. Mitchell-Innes & Nash of New York (2.0/E6) is showing Transept, 1978, an acrylic on canvas by the Op Art artist Julian Stanczak (priced in the region of $80,000), and a large-scale acrylic painting by Morris Louis (Beta Alpha, 1961; price undisclosed). Bridget Riley’s acrylic work Clandestine, 1973, which was exhibited at the Galerie Ernst Beyeler in 1975, is on offer with Hazlitt Holland-Hibbert of London (2.0/D16) for £780,000.

But as these paints age, the need for information on how to care for works made using them is at an all time high, especially as the demand and prices for these pieces increase. There was a dearth of information on how modern paints age until a few years ago when institutions such as London’s Tate and the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) in Los Angeles decided to throw their collective weight and expertise behind research projects aimed at finding answers to these important questions.

Rapid drying time

Acrylics make up 50% of artists’ paint sales over the past 30 years. The synthetic resins used in acrylics emulsion paints make them inherently flexible. Originally designed to be used outdoors, they can stretch and bend with very little cracking unlike traditional oils, which are harder and are prone to crack over time. As well as having a rapid drying time—acrylics can dry in a matter of hours as opposed to days or even weeks so artists can work on one painting without interruption instead of having to juggle multiple works—they also tend to yellow far less with age than oils. Another benefit of using acrylics is that they are carried in water and not solvent, which made them a popular choice for artists such as Hockney, Warhol and Wesselmann.

The softness of acrylics, however, can lead to problems. If the temperature increases too much, the paint can become soft and pliable, making it easier to damage; too low and the paint film can become brittle and crack. Bronwyn Ormsby, a senior conservation scientist at the Tate, recommends “shielding works from temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius and above 30 degrees Celsius”. The recommended relative humidity levels are between 40% and 60%. The Tate began investigating acrylics in the early 2000s and in 2006 the museum teamed with the speciality insurer Axa Art on a three-year research project focused on the medium. One of the outcomes of the project was the guide, “Caring for Acrylics: Modern and Contemporary Paintings”.

The softness of the material also means that care needs to be taken when it comes to handling and transporting these works. Fingerprints are one of the biggest concerns, especially as many acrylic works are not glazed either for aesthetic reasons or because they are simply too large to put behind glass or perspex. “It goes against one’s natural instinct not to touch your works of art, but just think of all of the chemicals you accumulate on your hands throughout the day and the damage that they can do,” says Clare Dewey, a claims manager at Axa Art. The oils from your fingers can transfer onto the painting’s surface and attract dust and dirt. “You may not immediately see any marks on the painting so think you've got away with it but years later the dirt begins to show,” says Tom Learner, who left the Tate to join the GCI in 2007 as a senior scientist and the head of contemporary art research. “These fingerprints are very difficult to remove,” he says. Gloves should always be worn when handling acrylic works and Ormsby warns that when preparing works for transport, no packing materials should touch the paint’s surface as “they can leave unwanted impressions in the paint under certain circumstances”.

Despite their softness, Learner says that “compared to most materials contemporary artists might turn to, acrylics are remarkably stable”. So what types of damage do insurers encounter most when it comes to these paintings? “The majority of our claims are for accidental damage. They usually involve a cleaner knocking into something. It’s always the cleaner who gets the blame,” Dewey says. Rogue vacuum cleaner attachments are not the only culprits; children also often figure in the equation. “We had one case in which a little boy decided to put his action figure through a painting, perhaps in an attempt to make it look like the figure was flying,” she says. One recent claim involved an unknown substance that had dripped down a large area of blue paint on one of Lichtenstein’s “Imperfect Paintings”. “Restoring paintings with a large area of a single colour can be problematic. In some cases the only option available is to repaint the entire damaged area, which is not at all ideal,” Dewey says.


The cleaning of acrylic paintings is one of the hottest areas of research. According to Learner, acrylics respond differently than oils when it comes to cleaning treatments so conservators and scientists have had to go back to the drawing board to devise new cleaning systems. The Getty and Dow Chemical Company have collaborated on research into the subject. “Dow has robots that can test dozens of things at the same time… the whole process is automated so they can get through a huge number of cleaning systems to see what works,” Learner says. One byproduct of the research is Cleaning of Acrylic Painted Surfaces, a series of workshops for conservators that presents the latest research into cleaning.

Industrial coatings designed for use in the automotive and aviation industries are also used by artists, including Lichtenstein. “These paints were intended to be used outdoors so they are typically stable and their colour usually doesn’t fade, especially if they are kept indoors,” Learner says. But he warns that they can become brittle if painted on a floppy surface. He recommends that artists who use industrial paints apply them to solid surfaces, such as boards or aluminium panels, or to a canvas that has been stretched across something solid.

House paints

When it comes to house paints, Picasso is often the first to spring to mind. But the popularity of the medium did not stop with the Spanish master. A later generation of artists such as Patrick Caulfield, Bridget Riley and Frank Stella also used them. House paints can be one of the cheapest paints available as some manufacturers reduce the amount of binders and pigments—the expensive components—and increase the cheaper substances, such as water and chalk, to keep costs down. But not all house paints are made with cheap materials and many works made using them remain in good condition. Learner cites Riley’s early black-and-white paintings on board and Stella’s early works on canvas painted with household enamels as examples of works that have fared well over the years. “You feel like they should show more damage, but they’re not cracking and typically they’re in good condition,” Learner says of Stella’s early works.

Although modern paints have forced conservators to get up to speed with a whole new set of materials very quickly, the challenges these paints present are minimal compared with some other forms of art. “The conservation challenges of paintings are reasonably manageable compared with those of other forms of contemporary art, such as installation or performance art or time-based media,” Learner says. “There are issues with Modern paintings but they are no where near the scale of the issues associated with other forms of Modern and contemporary art where there is still no real consensus within the conservation profession on how to best to conserve them.”

How to care for your acrylic paintings

Stability is the key: maintain a room temperature of between 15 to 25 degrees Celsius and a relative humidity of between 40% and 60%

Pick the right spot: hanging unglazed acrylic works over radiators or fireplaces or on a poorly insulated wall is not advisable

Do not touch: the paint will absorb oils from your fingers, attract dust and leave fingerprints

Keep dust at bay for works in storage: make sure they are properly wrapped and that the packing materials do not come in contact with the paint's surface

Cleaning regime: do not dust with wet or impregnated cloths or try to clean with solvents typically used to clean oil paintings. A vacuum and a soft artists' brush applied to a well-bound, intact acrylic paint films twice a year does the trick

Source: “Caring for Acrylics: Modern and Contemporary Paintings”, published by Axa Art in collaboration with the Tate

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25 Jun 13
16:14 CET


Very Very Informative article..thanks

24 Jun 13
17:29 CET


Very good information, thank you. It did seem to me, too, that it was about time for sufficient field experience to have begun yielding conservation findings on these kinds of pigment/solvent combinations. Much appreciated.

17 Jun 13
16:34 CET


Too bad these conservators didn't get in touch with me about how resilient acrylics can get. I had around 40-50 paintings sitting in an unheated and not very well insulated shed for around 6 years, subjected to immense heat and cold. When I moved them from the shed, the only thing I had to do was break out the water bottle and rag to wipe them down. They have all been fine since, no cracking whatsoever. And this is work with heavy wood filler texture on the surface also. And that made it out the same as it came in. Cheers.

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