Selecting and caring for your art

© 2012 – 2014 by Tom Baillieul

Artworks come in many forms (2-dimensional, 3-dimensional, free-standing) and materials. A collector needs to know a little bit about how an artwork is constructed to understand how best to display and care for it. The materials from which a piece of art is made may also play into the pricing of the art. When in doubt, ask the artist or gallery owner.


 Artists throughout history have experimented with a wide variety of materials to create works of art – some of which turned out to be less durable than others over time. For the artist, the creative process often is more important than the end product. Artists of antiquity in equatorial Africa worked mainly in wood, fiber, leather, bone, and shell, materials which decompose rapidly in a hot, humid environment. Thus, we have few traces of art from this region that date to more than 2 centuries ago. In contrast, the artists of ancient Egypt sought to create works that would last through all eternity – and chose durable materials (stone, bronze, glazed ceramics). The Egyptians also were favored by a dry climate that aided preservation even of fragile paintings, papyrus, and cloth.

 Sometimes the artist is limited by the technology of the time, or the expense of different materials. Several of the great French Impressionist artists worked with pastel and paint on brown wrapping paper, a very temporary surface because of its high acid content. Also, some art works are made intentionally to be ephemeral. Material matters – let's look at some of the most common.


Most types of stone are very durable and tolerate exposure to weather, making stone sculptures attractive pieces for outdoor displays. Marble, and its un-metamorphosed relative, limestone, are subject to chemical weathering from acid rain. Granite, basalt, norite, and diorite are highly durable and will hold a high polish even across centuries. Schist, slate, and shale are much less durable. Sculptures which have a lot of indents and crevices which can hold water should not be placed outdoors as the expansion of water when it freezes can shatter them. You can get an idea about the durability of different types of stone by visiting old cemeteries.


We're all familiar with ceramics in our dinnerware and various industrial uses. Ceramics are essentially clay which has been heated (“fired”) to a temperature that drives off internal water and causes the minerals to fuse. They come in many colors and grades, and durability varies with type and the temperature at which they are fired. Terra-cotta, best known from flower pots and roof tiles is an economical, widely available clay. It is fired at low temperatures, is porous unless glazed, and has less durability than the high-fired ceramics. Stoneware and porcelain are examples of higher fired clays and come in a variety of grades. All ceramics can be glazed, essentially painted with a slip, or liquid slurry, of finely crushed minerals and pigments. When fired, the glaze turns into a thin coating of glass. Be careful when using ceramic creations as utilitarian vessels – the acids found in some foods (e.g., fruits, salad dressings) can leach harmful metals out of certain glazes. Ask the artist about the safety of this type of use (many ceramicists and potters label their creations with instructions for use and handling).

Take care if deciding to place ceramics outdoors as freeze-thaw conditions in colder climates can cause some ceramics to fracture.


We humans talk about our history in terms of the metals we employed – the “Copper Age”, the “Bronze Age”, the “Iron Age.” Metals shaped our culture, and have been used in art from the earliest times. Under the right conditions, an artwork made of most types of metals can last hundreds and even thousands of years. Bronze (an alloy of tin and copper) may be one of the most durable materials known. Iron rusts (even if kept indoors in humid climates), which can create a protective patina, but may corrode away if it is contact with acid soil. Stainless steel, bronze, and brass (an alloy of zinc and copper) can last essentially forever either indoors or out. Aluminum is very weatherproof, but bends and tears easily. Probably the most important thing to consider when selecting a metal artwork is where it will be shown, and the potential for it to get bumped and bent, or scratched. As with ceramics, before you attempt to use a metallic creation in a utilitarian fashion (e.g., as a fruit or punch bowl) check with the artist or gallery owner about the metal's composition. Antique pewter always contains dangerous amounts of lead as does older soldering on copper pipes and plates; some steel can be alloyed with metals like cadmium which can be leached out in harmful amounts.


There are many different types of wood and this material can be shaped by artists into an almost infinite variety of forms. Like metal and ceramic, wood can be crafted into pieces that combine aesthetics and useful functions. Many traditional cultures make utilitarian objects (e.g., spoons, bowls, chairs and stools) out of wood, but beautify them with elaborate carvings and designs. Even in 21st Century America, woodcrafters turn out beautiful and functional pieces which, with proper care, can last a lifetime. Water is the natural enemy of wood, so if you are buying a sculptural piece or a carved garden bench to be placed outdoors, know that it will have a very finite life. As a rule, the harder the wood, the longer it will last in the elements (that's why yacht builders use teak and mahogany for decking). Some woods, like cedar and chestnut (alas no longer available) are amazingly resistant to rot. Sometimes a good grade of exterior varnish, renewed every two years or so, can extend the life of an outdoor artwork made of wood. Ask the artist or gallery owner about the appropriateness of such treatments.

Indoors, with reasonable humidity control, wood carvings, turnings, and utilitarian pieces can last indefinitely. Be sure to ask the artist or gallery about care instructions. Some may recommend regular treatment with a fine oil (tung or lemon oil) or wax. Also, if you want to use an item such as a turned wood bowl for serving salads, breads, and the like, ask about proper use and care.


For many of us, when we think of art, we think of paintings; and certainly, 2-dimensional paintings in a variety of mediums have dominated western art for centuries. As museum exhibits show, oil and egg tempra can survive with minimal loss of brilliance for hundreds of years. Modern oil, acrylic, and alkyd paints are formulated for long-lasting durability and color retention. Lightfastness is a relative term (see “The Enemies” below). Some pigments are less lightfast than others (esp. fluorescent colors). Mineral pigments (ocher, sienna, umber, bone black, titanium white, French Ultramarine) tend to hold their true colors indefinitely.

Pastels (including colored pencil and charcoal)

Pastels comprise powdered pigments and a binder and are used for drawing on paper or specialized 2-dimensional surfaces. Most pastels are lightfast. Being applied dry, pastels can smear easily and must always be protected under glass. Never use plastic, such as Plexiglas® to cover a pastel work; the plastic builds up a static electric charge which will lift the pastel powder right off the surface. Famous pastel artists such as Degas and Toulouse Lautrec created works on brown wrapping paper – because it was cheap. Some current artists emulate this style. The problem is that brown paper has a high acid content and it decays within a decade or two without treatment by qualified conservators – and expensive proposition!


These artworks are basically wax, or wax combined with other materials. While the pigments used with the encaustic material may be lightfast, wax by definition is very soft and can scratch easily. Also, these artworks should be kept out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources such as fireplaces.

Photographs/Lithographs/Digital prints/Silk Screen prints

Photographs and digital prints are printed with dyes or inks on papers of various weights and surface treatments. Lithographs and silk screen prints are printed on paper using thicker inks. All of these types of work when produced on acid-free paper and with pigment based inks (rather than dyes) can last for more than a century with proper care. However, like watercolors, these types of artworks are highly sensitive to sunlight and other sources of ultra-violet radiation, and will fade rapidly when exposed to strong light sources. Covering such works with ultra-violet blocking glass can help ensure their lasting color and longevity. If you buy photographs or prints produced with novel techniques, be sure to ask the artist or gallery owner about durability and any special care requirements.


Weavings, quilts, macrame felt sculptures, works in fiber represent one the most ancient traditions in art. Fiber can be cloth, thread, string, twine, rope, and sometimes leather, wire, grass, bamboo, or vines. As Egyptian archeology has shown, cloth and other fiber constructions can last for millennia. The key is to keep things dry. Some curators choose to protect fiber works behind glass, whereas most fiber artists want people to get up close so that they can see a piece's subtle textures. One final point, the colors in a fiber construction will fade when exposed to light the same way as a painting or photograph.

Mixed Media

Like the old adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so too mixed media pieces are only as durable as their most fragile components. The components of mixed media works will tend to be those discussed above, although some artists include materials we might not consider appropriate for a work of art. Acclaimed Nigerian artist, Chris Offili, creates mixed media collages incorporating symbolism from his African roots – commonly placing pieces of elephant dung onto his canvases. Purchasers of his high-priced works learn to their dismay that, no matter how many coats of varnish, dung is not archival. I once saw a composite piece where the artist had chewed cheese puffs and spit mouthfuls onto baby wipes, framing the resulting diffused orange mass. Such a work cannot be considered archival – or particularly sanitary. Another piece I once owned was a framed and glassed chess board where alternate squares were constructed of iridescent blue butterfly wings. After several years I noticed that many of the wings were decomposing. On closer inspection I found that tiny insect larvae were eating the way through the wings!  Always ask the artist or gallery about the components of any mixed media work, and about special handling/care required.


Paper is well known as a substrate for artworks in watercolor, pastel, pen and ink, charcoal, pencil, and even oil or acrylic paint.  Paper can also be an artistic medium in its own right.  Paper pulp can be shaped and sculpted into a wide variety of three-dimensional forms.  Flat sheets can be cut into intricate patterns and layered to create fantastic shadows.  Paper can be folded into shapes both simple and highly complex (e.g., origami).  It can be treated with waxes or oils to create different levels of translucency.  It can be torn or shredded, woven and stitched, embossed or carved, even scorched and burned.  And paper in all these forms can be dyed or painted with many different media.

While paper is versatile as a medium, artworks in paper require exceptional care.  Paper tears easily, it creases readily, it stains permanently, it is flammable, and it will degrade over time (especially if it is not acid-free).  Most thin paper is not dimensionally stable, meaning that larger sheets will tend to sag and distort even when matted and framed.  Artworks made of paper should be displayed away from direct sunlight, and should not be exposed to high humidity or large changes in temperature.  Recognize that paper is one of the most ephemeral of media.


Time, sunlight, water and acid are the traditional enemies of any artwork. We can't do anything about time, but there are ways to minimize the effects of the others.


Ultraviolet rays, which come with sunlight (even on cloudy days) can “bleach” certain pigments, including ones which may be labeled “lightfast.” Sunlight can also destroy or discolor various papers. Never hang an artwork in a spot which receives direct sunlight and consider covering with an ultra-violet protective glass.


Common papers (newspaper, copier paper) are made in a process which leaves an acidic residue in the fibers. Over time this type of paper yellows and becomes very brittle as the fibers break down. The most durable artworks use more expensive acid-free papers. Before purchasing a work on paper (pen and ink, watercolor, photograph, print) confirm that it is of archival quality.


It probably goes without saying that artworks not intended to get wet will not react well with water. Moisture, including high humidity, can cause mold to form on canvas, paper or cloth, discoloring and weakening the artwork. Wood exposed to high humidity can rot. Water will cause watercolors and pastels to “bleed” and run. Unless an artwork is intended to be displayed out of doors, or to be in direct contact with water (e.g., Chihuly glass spheres floating in fish ponds), art lasts longest in dry conditions.


Yes, over time artworks will collect dust and grime just like a window sill or a piece of furniture. Cleaning an artwork should be done with care. For metal, stone, or ceramic sculptures use a soft cloth that has been moistened with distilled water. For fiber pieces or paintings, use a soft brush to remove dust from the surface no more than once a year; do not be overly aggressive. Never "dry clean" a fiber piece, such as an art quilt.  For artwork under glass, never spray glass cleaner directly on the glass, it can run underneath and be “wicked” up into the medium (paper, canvas), discoloring it. Spray a small amount of glass cleaner onto a clean, lint free cloth and gently clean the glass.  Never use paper towels as all paper contains clay which can scratch glass or acrylic sheets.