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  • Oil Rotting CanvasApproveRejectUn-ApproveSubscribeUn-Unsubscribe
    Question asked 2017-04-08 22:00:47 ... Most recent comment 2017-04-09 20:54:00
    Art Conservation Topics

    ​Hi there

    I've arrived here from the Wet Canvas forums, following a thread I was interested in, regarding damage to the acrylic "gesso" of a canvas, and subsequent oil strikethrough. Many respondents, in their answers, referred to the danger of "oil rotting the canvas", and indeed, searching this forum, found similar references. The problem I have is: I've never seen oil rotting a canvas. I've searched the internet of course, but may just be looking in the wrong places.

    I have some student canvases, they are about 25 years old, with paint stains on the side of the stretched canvas. There is no sign of degradation of the weave.


    I have also read (I don't have a reference) that oil could be getting the blame from damage bry damp and mold in some cases. Is it possible that the fatty acids in Linseed Oil become effectively neutralized in the polymerization process, or simply locked up in the mass of fillers and pigment, and do little damage to the weave? I'm wondering what the evidence is to support the case for "oil rotting", and if there are photographs?


Answers and Comments

  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    First it is always a good idea to size. But obviously this is a choice left up to the artist. Directly relating to the earlier query posted here, we have actually been discussing the topic of "oil rotting canvas" recently and truth be told this topic remains one that requires further study. Such concerns can be traced back among artists for hundreds of years. Yet at the same time there are many, many examples of unsized paper (so made with cotton and/or linen fibers) that printmakers used as primary supports for oil-based prints (intaglio, lithography, etc.) that are hundreds of years old and in spectacular condition. HOWEVER there are certainly concerns regarding the chemistry involved with oil as it ages and degrades over time and the adverse affect that it can have on cellulosic fibers.


    This excerpt taken from the Chemical Principles of Textile Conservation (pg 117) may be of some interest:

    "When applied to a textile without a size, the liquid oil binding medium may penetrate into the fibers and impregnate the textile around the painted pattern. During network formation the oil film may shrink. The staining and shrinkage can damage both the appearance and structure of the underlying fabric; fibers can be damaged by the hardness and deterioration of the oil film. The presence of the peroxide crosslink in the film can result in chain scission of the carbon chains. The peroxide crosslink is a weak one, hence it readily undergoes ruptures caused by environmental heat or light. When the peroxide crosslink breaks the carbon to carbon bond located in the alpha position to the peroxide crosslink may also break. The resulting radicals may quickly undergo oxidation. […] The increasing acidity of the deteriorated oil layer may cause not only further fragmentation of the oil network but also hydrolyic breakdown of fibers, when it is in contact with cellulose, such as unsized paper, canvas, or barkcloth."

    As for your image it does not appear to us that the areas designated with arrows are due to staining from the oil medium; however, it can be difficult to make these determinations from photographs alone. For the moment we still recommend applying a quality size and ground to your canvas before applying subsequent layers of oil paint.

    Kristin deGhetaldi
    2017-04-08 23:18:39
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    Thanks for your reply, it is much appreciated.

    "First it is always a good idea to size."

    Of course. I'm not trying avoid preparing the surface.

    "This excerpt taken from the Chemical Principles of Textile Conservation (pg 117) may be of some interest..."

    Yes, it is interesting, but is it the same thing? If the oil in oil paint is surrounded by pigments and fillers, it isn't isolated and exposed to the air. Would this create a different chemical environment?

    "As for your image it does not appear to us that the areas designated with arrows are due to staining from the oil medium"

    Its paint, not medium, though the paint probably has some medium in it. Maybe there's not enough of it to have an effect... ? In any case if there are any web resources with photos of canvas rotted by oil paints, I would appreciate a link. I feel the jury is still out, I hope there is more to this discussion. Thanks again for your response. ​

    2017-04-09 01:21:49
  • EditDeleteModerator Answer

    To our knowledge there are no images out there floating around that demonstrate "oil rotting on canvas"...although some of our conservation colleagues that work with archaeological or ancient textiles may have some evidence/information that we are not privy to in the paintings world. But with fabrics of significant age it can be hard to pinpoint one factor and one factor alone that might have accelerated certain degradation processes....this is why we still feel it is a topic that is up for debate when it comes to traditional easel paintings.
    As for the presence of fillers/pigments you will still have the same chemistry at play. Painting directly on top of an unsized and unprimed canvas will still involve some sinking of the oil medium directly into the overabsorbent canvas beneath. You would also risk creating an underbound paint layer to boot. But as to whether these reactions would happen to the same degree it is hard to likely depends on the pigment-binder ratio and what type of pigments/fillers are present. Hope this is somewhat helpful!

    Kristin deGhetaldi
    2017-04-09 13:00:06
  • ApproveRejectUn-ApproveUser Comment

    It does help, thank you very much Kristin. By the way, I note that - in my initial post - I  inadvertently used the phrase "oil stain"​ when I should have written "oil paint stain". Apologies for that lack of clarity.

    2017-04-09 20:54:23

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