The Paint is Cracking on My Painting!

"What causes the cracking in oil paints that is often seen in antique paintings?" is one of the most common questions that I am asked.

This phenomena of small cracks within the oil paint is known as crazing and is usually caused by drying times and the environmental conditions that the art has been subjected to.

It's only been in the 20th Century with our current heat and air conditioning methods that have allowed us to live within a fairly consistent indoor temperature and humidity. Prior to this, fireplaces were the most common method of heating a home and an open window was the way to cool it. This fluctuation in the environment puts stress on a work of art. The oil paint and supports, whether it is canvas or wood, actually expands and contracts.

Another factor is that artists usually create oil paintings by layering the colors. This layering process means that the paint has different drying times. Also, it was not until 1841 that paints were available to artist in metal tubes. Prior to this, the artists had to grind the pigments and mix them in the oil which meant that the oil to pigment ratio was not necessarily consistent from one color to the next which also affected the drying times.

Now, think about these different layers as similar to the tectonic plates of the earth. These plates are always expanding and contracting depending on the stress that it encounters. This shifting over the centuries have caused mountains to be formed and earthquakes to wreck havoc. This is what happens to the layers of paint, but instead of a "paint quake" you see a maze of cracks within the painting. These cracks might appear over the entire painting or just within a localized area. It is just a natural process of antique paintings.

The value of the art is not impacted by crazing unless it is very severe, with large cracks and paint loss. Restoration can usually remedy a severe problem. Most of the time, crazing stabilizes when the art is in a modern home or business.

If the area of cracked paint has a center and expands out similar to a spider web, then the canvas has experienced trauma such as being hit or poked. The canvas many not have been punctured, but over a time period the stress of the changing environment will expose the hidden damage. A good restorer can help to stabilize and support this area.

Enjoy your antique painting and the history that it represents!

Melanie Smith

Melanie is the co-owner of Seaside Art Gallery, Nags Head, NC which specializes in original fine art. The gallery was founded in 1961 by her parents and she has grown up in the world of art. She has organized numerous art shows, acted as an art judge and is an accredited fine art and animation art appraiser with the International Society of Appraisers.

Visit: Seaside Art Gallery

Seaside Art Gallery
PO Box 1
2716 So Virginia Dare Trail
Nags Head, NC 27959

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