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Aboriginal painting methodsCaring for Acrylic Paintings


Acrylic paint and acrylic binder are now widely used by many Aboriginal artists. Acrylic paints are extremely durable and there is evidence to suggest that their life is greater than almost all other artists' materials.

Acrylic colors retain their original brilliance as long or longer than traditional oil paint, and they are much less sensitive to damage by UV radiation than watercolors and other water-based paints. The surface of a finished acrylic painting does not become brittle or yellow with age, but remains flexible, insoluble and permanent.

However, as with all materials, care and proper treatment is needed if this is to be achieved. Avoid handling the painting's surface directly - this is because skin oils are acidic and can damage the artwork over time. Abrasion from rubbing or touching the paint surface can damage or alter the appearance of the work significantly. Dust and dirt are a particular hazard.

Dust and Acrylic Paintings

Acrylic paint surfaces are not as hard as oil films and they attract dirt easily. Acrylic emulsion films tend to be quite soft and flexible at room temperature so the paint surface holds onto dust and can even absorb it into the film. The problem is made worse by the fact that acrylic resins are non conductors and tend to have electrostatic charges on their surface which attract dirt.

The best way to preserve the appearance and value of an acrylic painting is to avoid touching the paint surface and to protect it from accumulating dust. Protective framing is one way to exclude dirt.

If the painting does become dusty, the only safe way to remove it is to gently blow across the surface of the work with compressed air. To help carry away loose dirt, it is important to gently blow air across the surface of the painting at an angle, rather than directly onto the surface. Blowing directly could embed dirt particles further into the paint surface.

If a great deal of dust has accumulated on the painting, some professional conservators have suggested using an artist's soft sable brush to gently dislodge the particles while holding the nozzle of a small vacuum hose several inches from the surface of the painting. Remember that nearly any art work can be damaged or scratched by contact with feather dusters, cloths, or hard bristles such as those on household vacuum attachments.

Cracks in Acrylic Paintings

Acrylic paintings are expected to develop cracks much less often than oil paintings because they are more flexible and can withstand much greater forces without breaking. However, cracks can form in acrylic paintings.

The surface of an acrylic painting becomes quite brittle at temperatures near or below freezing. Prolonged exposure to very cold temperatures can irreversibly damage the painting, causing cracks and lifting the paint film from the canvas support. Should the painting be accidentally exposed to cold, it is important to handle the work as little as possible and allow it to warm to room temperature slowly.

Acrylic paintings, when relatively new, are often rolled in a tube for storage or delivery. The preferred way to roll the painting is with the paint surface facing outward from the axis of the cylinder, with the surface protected by tough paper. Make sure that the tubes are sealed from dust!

Cleaning Concerns

At present there is no completely satisfactory solution to the problem of cleaning acrylic paintings.

Traditionally, varnishes have been used to protect the surface of a painting from abrasion, dust and dirt. They also provide saturation to the paint they cover. Use of a varnish to help remove the top layer of dirt has been proposed by some conservators. However, there are concerns as to whether or not to varnish acrylic paintings because the dried acrylic paint layer is soluble in the solvents used to make most resin solutions. As a consequence, many artists insist that their acrylic paintings not be varnished.

Cleaning an emulsion paint with no varnish is also problematic because water may remove water-soluble additives and could weaken the link between the pigment and the polymer-binder, causing colors to appear less saturated. Cleaning may also cause the thickener additives to swell, thus disturbing the paint layer.

Overall there appear to be problems for professional conservators in cleaning acrylic paintings, so you definitely should not try to do it yourself using damp cloths, detergents or household cleaners. Many cleaners contain ammonia, and the overspray from cleaning a frame or nearby furniture may severely damage the painting. Ammonia can destroy an acrylic painting.

Other Problems - Mould, Smoke, Heat

Mould growth has been noted on acrylic paintings and has become an increasing concern among artists and collectors. Unfortunately, there is no ideal treatment that does not cause some degree of damage to the original paint. Mould growth tends to become apparent when humidity and temperature rise, so keeping the painting away from these conditions is the best prevention.

Smoke damage or residue is one of the most common hazards to artwork displayed at home, and is also the most difficult to remove.

Acrylic paint becomes soft around 60ºC and become very sensitive to damage from pressure or abrasion.

Some acrylic paintings may appear to form a grey veil on their surface or develop yellow discoloration with aging. There appears to be nothing that can be done to reverse this ageing.

For more information on cleaning acrylic paintings, see the Golden Paints Web site.


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