Art Doctors : Restorers & Conservationists

Singapore is becoming a centre for art in the region, with monetary, historic, sentimental and artistic interests paralleling the explosion of art galleries, exhibitions, festivals, fairs, auctions, retrospectives, biennales and personal and institutional art collections.

Collecting art has become de rigeur, but what happens after the purchase ? Is mounting, framing and displaying the end of the process ?

At 1º north of the Equator, Singapore is as tropical as it can get. Relative Humidity (RH), according to the National Environment Agency is 84.2%, often rising to the high nineties. Add warm-to-hot-hotter-hottest weather, thunderstorms, monsoons, ‘Sumatra squalls’, dry spells and haze to the island’s climatic offerings and it requires little imagination to comprehend the possible effects these may have on paper, ink, oil and canvas.

Threats to artwork

The life span of an artwork can be affected by direct sunlight, pollution, unprofessional conservation and/or handling, yellowing varnish, stress impacts or just plain ignorance and human neglect. Disfiguring mould, cracks, tears, flaking paint, distortions, fading colours and insect excreta may develop because of the environment. Severe or irreversible damage can occur in conjunction with dust, temperature, humidity and the growth of fungus, mould and foxing (the brown stains, specks and spots that appear on paper).

The science behind this – especially in a tropical country – is fascinating.

Dust, which rises with hot air, is easily deposited on an artwork and it bonds to the paper with atmospheric humidity, increasing the acidic level of the paper while weakening it. It promotes fungal growth, which attracts more dust … and the cycle continues.

Heat softens the layers of paint (making it easier for dirt and debris to get trapped in paint or varnish), makes paper brittle and changes in temperature cause canvases to expand and contract, paving the way for further damage.

Low Relative Humidity makes paint brittle, high RH promotes the growth of fungus and mould, and fluctuations in RH negatively affect wooden panel paintings, paintings on canvas and works of art on paper.

Mould and fungi spores in the air can damage paint, causing pitting. In oil paintings, mould spots typically first appear along the cracks and by the time this happens, there usually is a heavy proliferation behind the canvas. Mould feeds on a number of things – the materials in the artwork, the binding medium, the paste in the lining.

Fungus causes brown spots to develop on paper – foxing.

And last, but not least, high humidity, lack of light and ventilation and the accumulation of dust and dirt provide the ideal conditions for the breeding of insects : silverfish, which eat the superficial layer of the paper; cockroaches which leave stains on the surface; bookworms, which drill holes; and termites, which leave muddy channels in their wake (and sometimes destroy an entire collection overnight).


Prevention, Conservation, Restoration

Every artwork has its own life span, which is determined not only by the materials and techniques used in its creation, but also the environment in which it resides. In the tropics, many factors contribute to the ageing process of an artwork, most acting as catalysts and not the cause.

Keeping artworks healthy and safe is a specialized knowledge that draws upon a number of inter-disciplinary fields such as materials and building sciences, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, systems science and management and other technical disciplines.

Enter the art doctors, the repair specialists, the restorers and the saviours of investments, sentiment and history, who address the myriad problems – inherited and external – that besiege collectors of art.

Art aficionados in Singapore and the region can avail of a range of services in restoration, preventive and curative conservation from Benaka Art Conservation and Renate Kant Studio. Chandrahasa, Jayashree and Renate offer a wealth of knowledge and experience invaluable to any collector interested in preserving the value of his investment. Professional, accessible and generous with their time and advice, these professionals have some pointers for those who want to know what to do on a daily basis.

A little knowledge goes a long way

At the framers, request acid-free backing board, paper hinges and non-acidic, reversible adhesives. Choose UV buffered acrylic glazers instead of glass. Avoid plywood as backing for artwork on paper as the risk of biological growth is high, as are increased acidity levels in the paper. Avoid gum tape or masking tape as it can irreversibly stain the artwork. Maintain a gap between the glass or acrylic protection and artwork with a spacer. Create a slight gap between the artwork and the wall for air circulation. Always use reflective light rather than direct light.

Locate artworks in airy, well-lit areas, keep surroundings clean and green, control the presence of dust and dirt, regulate temperature and humidity with air conditioning and dehumidifiers.

To some, art is both investment and pleasure, and to many, more business than enjoyment. Whatever the motivation, it makes every kind of sense to heed Warren Buffet’s advice : Never invest in a business you cannot understand.


Photographs courtesy Benaka Art Conservation Pte Ltd.




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