Cautious Mildew Advice

Q. I recently bought an oil painting that had been in storage for some time, and when I checked the back of the canvas I found some mildew that had probably been there for a while because the painting was dry. How can I remove it without causing damage?
Martin G. Manthe
Roseburg, OR

A. Offhand, it seems that you don’t have very much to worry about with your new painting. If both the mildew and the painting are completely dry and you don’t see any damage to the image, then the mildew is probably just a stain and will have no harmful effect. If you’d like to remove it anyway, you could brush the stain with a soft-bristle brush and see if that removes some of it, or you could expose the back of the painting for a few days to sunlight coming through a south-facing window. The exposure to sunlight may kill the mold that’s causing the mildew. But if no damage has occurred yet and if you keep the painting in a dry and stable environment, then you shouldn’t have any significant problems.

I should caution, however, that this advice is general, and a conservator would have to examine your painting to know exactly what’s happening to it. This is especially true because you don’t know the painting’s history. Issues such as how old the painting is, how long it’s been in storage and where, what kind of ground is under the paint and whether it has a glue size underneath, and what the stain on the back looks like can all make a big difference in the most appropriate way to clean (or not to clean) the painting. To be sure, I’d recommend you phone the conservation lab at a large museum and ask for the name of a qualified conservator in your area. You can never tell when a little expert advice for your particular situation will save you from ending up with a ruined painting.

Incidentally, it may be that the only universally applicable advice is that each artwork is different, and what works for one painting in conservation terms might not work for another. There’s such a variety of materials and techniques in painting that conservation is usually tailored to an individual piece of art, and this is true not only of repair work but preparation and application methods as well. You can find plenty of good, widely applicable advice, but we should all remember that there are no standard quick fixes.

Jane M. Mason has received numerous awards for her art, and her artwork is held in collections across the country. Her articles have appeared in many national magazines. She was named “One of the 2000 Outstanding Artists of the 20th Century” by International Biographical Center, Cambridge, England. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and two sons. She can be contacted at JMM2Paint@aol.com; her Web site is www.watchingpaintdry.com.

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