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Life of a Painting

June 1, 2022 by Mirjam Hintz

Just Paint published by Golden Artist Colors, Inc.

What is a realistic expectation for the ‘service life’ of a painting? How long can one expect a painting to last when using best practices and reasonably archival materials?

We don’t have any definite answers, but we’ll try to put things into perspective for you. The oldest surviving body of work from the Western painting tradition, which is structurally akin to paintings as we know them today, with panel support, ground and paint layers, and varnish, are altarpieces from the late 13th century. Whether contemporary paintings will also last 700 years and longer is hard to say. The life cycle of a painting depends on many factors, including natural aging, storage conditions, accidental damage, being repaired or painted over, and being sold and resold. Let’s look at these factors and some typical stations in the life of a painting.

Storage: A Safe Place - Painting Storage

Unless a painting belongs to the culturally most important group of a collection, the archive is likely going to be its permanent home. However, efforts are being made to digitalize collections and more museums have visible storages. About 95% or more of museum collections are in storage and maintaining these storage spaces makes up a significant part of museum budgets.

  1. There is a trend of museum storages getting overcrowded and artworks being stored in temporarily rented storage spaces, meaning more frequent transports, or being kept in provisional spaces like corridors.

  2. In general, however, we can consider museum storage a safe place for paintings, with well controlled environments.

Compared to the professional storage of either private or public collections, artist’s storage spaces may be a whole different story. Lack of space might tempt artists to stack or roll their paintings too tightly. Other typical risk factors are humid climates causing mold and extreme temperature fluctuations, as well as pests and leakages. Ideally, paintings are stored away from UV-light, at relative humidity levels between 40 and 60% and at temperatures between 60-80°F / 16–25°C. Paintings should be stretched rather than rolled and stored vertically, without anything touching the surface.



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