Can Faded Oil Paintings Be Restored?

oil painting

While oil paints were used to create a great number of the world’s creative masterpieces, the fact their color will fade and diminish over time often poses a serious reason to worry. Therefore, it’s no surprise that museums, galleries, and exhibition halls all have climate-controlled rooms that are constantly monitored by well-trained employees, ready to act on the slightest change to the painting’s appearance. 

Can Faded Oil Paintings Be Restored? Competent restorers can do wonders when it comes to bringing discolored or otherwise damaged paintings back to their old glory, making sure that only the necessary retouching is done to particular portions of the painting. Even if faded images can’t be restored completely, conservation can make them look significantly better. 

Having this in mind, in this review we’ll try to explain just why oil paintings fade, what can be done about it, and how much it will cost to reverse the damage.

Why Oil Paintings Fade?

The color of an oil painting begins to change the moment the artist completes it. Due to the variety of pigments used, some hues are naturally prone to fading. However, over time, all colors fade, darken, or become more translucent. Such change is slow, spanning decades or even centuriesOpens in a new tab., but it’s inevitable.

When exposed to light, organic dye pigments like rose madder and indigo will slowly lose color. As a result, green foliage in old masters’ flower paintings may appear blue due to color loss from a yellow gamboge glaze based on plant resins.

Though modern oil colors are fairly good and do not tarnish easily due to the advanced technology involved, it is prudent to evaluate the lightfast feature of a painting’s color pigment. Grade I and Grade II color pigments are renowned as having great archival quality, and if properly cared for, they will enchant the audience for years even with minimal maintenance.

The colors in an oil painting may also appear faded after drying, which is a process that might take anywhere from a few months to a year. The colors’ vivid appearance will be restored by varnishing them. Glazing, a technique that involves applying a new thin layer of oil paint over an already dried layer to add depth and richness to oil paintings, could efficiently assist an oil painting whose colors became subdued.

However, some artists varnish oil paintings too soon, causing the varnish to blend with the paint and become impossible to remove without ruining the picture. As a result, oil paintings can fade and grow dull with time, and sometimes there is nothing that can be done to restore them. 

Pollutants in the environment can also affect color tone. For example, hydrogen sulfide in the air converts white lead-based paint to black lead sulfide. Natural resin varnishes, which have traditionally been used to protect artworks, age and darken over time, making the image on a painting difficult to see and altering the tonal balance. 

Moreover, dust which can obscure the image settles on paintings over time. Other types of grime, such as soot and tobacco tar, will also accumulate on a painting surface. Although most dirt may be removed with care, soot and smoke damage can permanently alter the tone of a painting, especially if the support is not primed or the painting is not polished.

Finally, the painting becomes yellower and paler with time because of the acidity that’s naturally present in the canvas. To avoid this, it is recommended that you use an acid-free canvas. Many painters like to use 100 percent cotton cloth that is acid-free. The same goes for framing the painting. Even if the canvas is of excellent quality, if the frame is acidic, it can harm the painting. Therefore, before you decide to frame your work of art, it’s best to do some research on framing materials rather than buying one on the spur of the moment and regretting it later.

Can Sunlight Damage Oil Paintings?

Leaving the painting in a heated environment for an extended amount of time will eventually cause damage to the oil painting. When the oil paint is heated, either from a sunlit window, or if the painting was put close to other sources of heat, such as near a fire or fireplace, a chemical reaction occurs, causing the browning and deterioration of the painting’s surface. As a result, the colors alter, which can be visible to the bare eye. 

Exposure to ultraviolet rays can also harm oil paintings. Some pigments are by nature susceptible to ultraviolet radiation, acids, and bases, causing the colors on the painting to fade if it’s exposed to any of these circumstances. Because UV radiation is naturally present in the sunshine, exposing a painting containing sensitive pigments to direct sunlight might cause the colors to turn dull. 

While the majority of oil paintings are kept indoors, they are nevertheless at risk from filtered sunlight, which is considered less destructive than direct sunlight but can cause some specific colors of oil paint to fadeOpens in a new tab.. Worse yet, it might cause the varnish to discolor.

Because the detriment takes time to manifest, most oil paintings will not sustain significant damage in a short period of time. Obviously, if you have a family treasure or an artwork that holds a lot of sentimental value for you, avoid exposing it to bright sunlight. On the other hand, if it’s a painting you don’t care about as much, accept the reality that it might get damaged by rays of the sun and enjoy it while it lasts.

What Type of Damage Can Be Restored?

The most important thing to know when it comes to your oil painting is that no amount of care can prevent it from deteriorating. However, good and timely conservation and restoration can significantly prolong the life of your artwork. 

Painting conservators, who have undergone specific training and have years of experience, can assist you in preserving your artwork for as long as feasible. They can assist you not only with general painting maintenance, such as dust and dirt removal, but also with fixing the effect of many tragic mishaps, for example, water, smoke and heat damage, cracks, and other damage. 

Conservators can restore paintings that have been damaged by 50% or less without lowering their value, as long as the damage does not fundamentally harm the original work.

Paintings can be harmed in a variety of ways depending on the conditions. While any type of painting damage is undesirable, a significant portion of it can be repaired. It’s a time-consuming procedure that’s also an art form itself. Even though the types of damage differ significantly, they all fall into one of two categories: structural or aesthetic.

Storage in an unsuitable environment, material deterioration, or bad handling procedures can all cause structural damage. Human intervention is included in this category, and it is a strong contender for causing the most damage to art. Aesthetic or cosmetic damage is caused by old varnishes that cause discoloration or paint flaking off the surface of the artwork.

One of the most common mistakes in painting happens when the paint from one part of an oil or a watercolor painting spreads or spills into the adjacent region, which is colloquially known as bleeding. After the painting has been exposed to wetnessOpens in a new tab., the varnish on a painting becomes foggy or drab, giving the impression that the artwork is steamy or misty. 

If you don’t clean your paintings with the right instruments, the friction between the painting and the cleaning tools might scrape the paint and cause abrasions, so your painting will appear scratched or have little sections of paint that have been wiped away. Abrasions can also occur if the painting’s frame comes into contact with the paint. 

Oil paintings can develop cracks, which might appear on the painting’s surface in the most bizarre shapes or forms. While age is the most typical cause of these cracks, interactions between the canvas and the layers of the painting can also lead to this type of damage, also known as craquelure.

This is the first of a two-part video of an aficionado’s restoration of an oil painting.
Willy DahmOpens in a new tab.

Some people might try to fix the damage on their own, but it can be a hard task for inexperienced hands. However, the good news is that all of these issues, and more, can be resolved with the magic touch of a professional!

How Much does it Cost to Repair an Oil Painting?

Beyond preserving the original materials, conservators consider restoration to include instances where fillers, colors, or coatings are needed to replace a missing component of the artwork. Conservators also face inherent vice, which happens when the artist’s medium is incompatible with the coatings utilized by art conservators in restoration. Because current and contemporary artists utilize experimental acrylics, which are more delicate than oils, this problem is most common. 

Such a skill requires a lot of time and often a lot of money. Museums, for example, have X-ray devices that allow conservators to examine artworks beneath the surface to document their condition and quality. Infrared cameras can cost $50,000 to $100,000, although some equipment, like single-lens reflex cameras, is less pricey and costs around $1,000. 

Independent conservators do not have access to the technical equipment that museums do. Instead, they pay for samples to be sent to a lab for scientific analysis, which is then added to the final price of repairing the work of art. 

Conservators must submit a treatment proposal along with cost estimates and a report on their findings, which a customer must sign before any treatment may begin. Depending on the size and condition of the artwork, the price of restoration can range from a few hundred dollars for basic cleanings of paintings in personal property, to several thousand dollars for more elaborate projects. 

How to Prevent Oil Paintings from Fading?

Because extended exposure to heat and sunlight is most likely to cause discoloration of oil paints, placing the oil painting in areas of intense heat, humidity, and dryness, such as immediately under radiators, air conditioners, humidifier misters, heating vents, and especially over hot and burning fireplaces, should definitely be avoided. Also, when looking for an ideal place to hang your oil painting, stay away from unvented restrooms and baths, and heavily used kitchens. 

But what if you had your heart set on hanging that perfect painting in the sunny part of your apartment? If you don’t want the sun to influence your design decisions, frame your painting with UV-filtering acrylic rather than glass. It’s really lighter than glass, and it’ll keep your artwork from yellowing or fading in direct sunshine.

Another important piece of advice when it comes to keeping the paintings safe would be to place them in open places with sufficient air circulation to keep them safe. A closed or damp room, on the other hand, causes poor airflow and moisture buildup behind the paintings, which can lead to mold growth, insect infestation, decomposition, and discoloration.

Using a soft feather duster to dust and clean your artwork on a regular basis can really extend the life of your favorite oil painting. If it is left undisturbed for an extended period of time, not only will the artwork’s beauty be tainted, but dust will adhere to the oil paints, potentially necessitating professional cleaning.

It may sound like obvious advice, but you should always wear cotton gloves whenever you come into contact with your paintings or acrylic framing surfaces. If you fail to do so, you risk harming them by exposing them to your fingerprints and natural oils.

Last but not least, a final varnish coat is strongly suggested to protect oil paintings and isolate the paint surface from dirt, dust, soot, carbon monoxide, and UV rays. Even better, a varnish can give the entire oil portrait a more uniform texture by smoothing out transitions between glossy and matte areas that occur during the painting process.


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Ines, a self-taught artist from Caracas now based in the UK, explores diverse forms of art, from unconventional materials to sustainable and responsible use of resources.

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