What can I use to cover the faces of oil paintings that are being stored flat?
August 2, 2010 3:41 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for thin sheets of a material that I can use to cover a series of oil paintings stacked flat, which won't react to the paint itself and will prevent them from sticking or bonding to anything else.

I've got a collection of paintings that I'm in the process of sorting and preparing to archive. Much of the work was done in a heavy impasto style, so many of the paintings are still sticky if not actually wet. They're being reasonably well kept (dry, temp-controlled room) but I don't have the resources to box each one, nor to construct shelving that would keep each from contacting the next. There's a lot of them, and they're barely fitting into the (borrowed) room that I have them in now. As I've been pulling each one out to photograph & catalog, I'm finding that in some cases considerable damage has been done by the previous painting's backside sticking to the painted surface.
So I'm looking for sheets of material that I can place over the face of each one to keep them from sticking together. This article recommends sheets of polystyrene, which it says is also known as 'jablo', but after searching online and calling around my local art supply & hardware stores I've turned up no results, or even anyone who knew what jablo was. They know what polystyrene is, but don't have anything suitable for my application.
Any MeFites have experience with this type of thing? I need sheets as big as 36" square, but could get by with 18 x 24". I don't even know if polystyrene is really appropriate, and would prefer to use something more eco anyway, but need something that will do the trick for at least a couple of years.
Thanks in advance!
posted by $0up to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The usual thing for prints is glassine interleaving paper - here's a link to Dick Blick's - comes in 36" wide rolls. With a lot of still wet impasto you're obviously risking problems with anything touching the surface.

The Amien forums - great source for information on all topics to do with art materials - recommends storing paintings wrapped in tyvek or paper - or bagging in mylar for sale, not storage.
posted by leslies at 3:52 PM on August 2, 2010

my suggestion would have been glassine, but a quick trip to google turned up a better solution: single-sided silicone release paper.
posted by jimw at 3:55 PM on August 2, 2010

Silicone release paper is the best for this. You can get it from Talas (an art conservation supply house), in Brooklyn. Or you can get a large roll of coated freezer paper, which is basically palette paper, from Uline.
posted by R. Mutt at 4:09 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

And by "stacked flat", do you mean on top of each other? Because that is not good. They should be like books on a bookshelf, with no weight pressing down on the painting face.
posted by R. Mutt at 4:15 PM on August 2, 2010

Yes, do you mean one on top of the other? First rule of art handling is to never, ever, stack paintings on their backs, even in travel frames. Maybe this is somehow impossible in your borrowed room, but I can't really picture why. Gravity kills paintings dead.

The fact that these are heavily impastoed, and still drying (which I guess means oil), makes for a disaster that is hard to avert. Maybe your space/money constraints are such that this solution would be impractical, but I would suggest building cheap cardwraps for each work, allowing a gap for the front face of each. Carefully screw the stretchers to the card with small screws and big washers to keep the painting from falling forward. While glassine is an appropriate paper for oil paintings, as leslie pointed out above it's inappropriate for impasto, especially wet, and with cardwraps there would be no need for anything to touch the surface.

Polystyrene, no good. For flat paintings (as in, no surface texture that can catch and tear away from the support) it's best to wrap them in glassine, then heavy duty polyethylene. If they're to pack against other works, at the minimum a sheet of card should be placed between them (with the works face to face to avoid stretcher/paint contact).

I could go on, and I'll be happy to clarify if need be. Thanks for asking the question, because it's one of the first ask posts I can answer with any kind of authority. Yes, I admit it, I have been a professional art handler in my day. Shameful, but it pays the bills.

Postscript: I have not trusted a thing from eHow since reading this hilarious article [PDF].
posted by Chichibio at 4:25 PM on August 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's past my bedtime but you've got the art tech part of my brain grinding away. Let's try this again.

You want cheap, but you also want to stack. Since I really, really emphasise that you don't put any kind of material on top of a curing oil painting, maybe "railing" the works might just do the trick:

Cut a bunch of 12mm plywood rails, maybe 5cm thick. Work out a system (chairs, trestles, whatever works with the size of the paintings) so that you can either stand each painting up and be able to lay two rails along the top, or lay the pieces flat and work your way up (dangerous, because you could drop the next painting onto the one below). The rails should be parallel to each other and a few centimeters in from each edge. Carefully screw the rails to the paintings (with ply I would suggest piloting a hole first) until you have a manageable row or stack. This way you can leave a gap between the paintings, yet not have them touch anything else. If you saw this finished beast from the side it would look like a line of dominoes, with the wooden rails holding them upright.

I guess the easiest and most stable structure would have two rails on all four sides, but you could probably make it work with two opposing sides "railed" and some crossbars for racking strength. Without something to connect at least two sides, the whole construction will want to flop along the axis of the rails. If you allow the rails to extend beyond the edge of the last/bottom painting, you can use them as feet and stand the whole thing up. Voila, instant shelving without the shelves. Also, with only two sides locked down, it's fairly easy to undo the screws and slide the work out for photography.

Now this would only work if you have enough paintings of the same size to make it worthwhile, and you don't mind putting holes in the canvas edges (top and bottom shouldn't matter though). Or maybe the impasto drips over all the edges, making this whole post moot? I could be looking at a plate of beans here (and the wrong plate of beans at that) but without knowing the work or the particulars of the space it's the best I can come up with.

tl;dr - Without physically separating the works, they are going to get damaged. There is no material that will keep this from happening. Good luck!
posted by Chichibio at 5:18 PM on August 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is all great, thanks everyone very much. I'll clarify a couple of things:
I do know that it's not good to stack paintings flat; for the most part they are actually vertical but leaned up in rows of sufficient number -- there are around 400 of them -- that they're pressing against each other tightly, and many are unframed. Pretty far from ideal, you'll agree.
I'm intrigued, Chichibio, by your idea; 'railing' sounds a lot less costly than building shelves. You said it though -- there are not enough of the same size painting to make it worthwhile. A number are also oil on canvas paper, unmounted.
The borrowed space is where the paintings will live until I get to catalog/photograph them all, then a gallery will go up on the web; my family (they're my father's work) will use that to figure out who wants what. So I'm hoping this attempt to just keep the painted surfaces covered is going to be a temporary measure until they're out of storage.
The impasto, for what's it's worth, tends to be about eighth- to quarter-inch deep strokes at its thickest, so yeah, even though they're not new (most recent '03) they can still be quite soft, but we're not like in Frank Auerbach territory or anything.
The release paper is in the mail! I'll update when I've had a chance to try it out this weekend. Thanks again to everyone who responded.
posted by $0up at 11:10 PM on August 2, 2010

Silicon release Mylar
posted by krikany at 8:42 PM on August 4, 2010

oops, you already have it. You'll love it, it's good for a lot of things. We use it at our museum. I cast out adhesive films on it or use it to iron polyethylene foam plank with a regular clothes iron to smooth out the edges. Or for packing things that have a permanently sticky surfaces, like dishes that were used for oils. Or for keeping the tip of a heat spatula clean.
posted by krikany at 8:47 PM on August 4, 2010

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