Can Oil Paintings Be Stored in Freezing Temperatures?

Can Oil Paintings Be Stored in Freezing Temperatures?

Whether you’re a prolific oil painter or an avid art collector running out of storage space, you need to store your oil paintings effectively. Whatever situation you’re in, you want to keep your oil paintings safe– whether they are hundreds of years old or fresh off the easel.

Unfortunately, paintings are susceptible to damage. This is the case with any painting, but it might be more daunting in terms of oil paintings because the materials and the art itself are often costly. Temperature extremes and humidity are the main culprits when it comes to damage sustained by oil paintings. Find out why and how oil paintings should be stored to assist the drying process and protect your artwork’s integrity Opens in a new tab.for as long as possible.

An oil painting consist of support, ground, oil paints, and a coat of varnish. Supports are made of sheets of fabric like cotton or linen or wooden panels; most oil paintings have a linen support pulled taut over wooden stretchers that form the frame. The ground or primer acts as a smooth surface to receive the oil paint and absorb any excess medium while the varnish protects the paint from moisture, dust, and damage.

Oil paintings cannot be stored in freezing temperatures because the cold causes molecular changes in the layers of paint. Additionally, if your painting is fresh, colder temperatures will slow down the drying process of the paint. Any temperature extremes can cause damage to the canvas and paint.

The rest of the article will tell you everything you need to know about storing oil paintings to assist the drying process of new works and protect the integrity of your art collection for as long as possible. So, Can Oil Paintings Be Stored in Freezing Temperatures? Nope.

Why Oil Paintings Should Not Be Stored in Freezing Temperatures

Oil paintings should not be stored in freezing temperatures because oxidation or drying slows down, and the cold interferes with the paint molecules’ binding.

Temperature fluctuations as you move an artwork in and out of freezing conditions also cause irreversible damage to the frame and support of an oil painting.

How Freezing Temperatures Affect Oxidation

An oil painting dries by oxidation, a chemical reaction also known as polymerization. The oil molecules in which color pigments are suspended solidify and feel stiff and dry to the touch. 

This process can take years to complete, and extreme environments lengthen it further. Freezing temperatures affect oxidation by weakening and breaking the polymer bonds of the oil paint medium. The varnish layer will develop cracks, and the paint might flake and deteriorate.

Oxidation occurs best and most rapidly in a stable environment with moderate to high temperatures and strong airflow. A freezer is full of humid, stagnant, and cold air that will weaken the structural integrity of your valuable artwork.

How a Frozen Wooden Frame Behaves

Freezing temperatures will damage the wooden frames of your oil paintings by causing the wood to expand and contract as moisture moves in and out of the wood fibers. 

The frame’s expansion and contraction directly affect the support or canvas as well as the paint and varnish on top of it that are undergoing oxidation. This instability may lead to cracked varnish, which allows moisture to come in contact with oxidizing oil paint molecules and potential mold.

If your painting has a gilded frame, the latter may sustain damage as the gesso layer below is unable to flex with the wood. This layer, too, may begin to crack and flake.

What Happens to a Canvas Exposed to Freezing Temperatures

Oil paintings’ support or canvas generally comes in cotton or linen stretched over a wooden frame. Freezing temperatures impact the ability of cotton and linen to hold the oil paint and varnish effectively.

Humidity causes the fibers of the linen or cotton fabric to expand and contract in similar ways to the wooden frame. Constant movement in the canvas fibers will cause it to loosen and sag and the paint to become unstable.

Your artwork will require re-stretching, which may weaken the canvas when it is once again exposed to colder temperatures. An oil painting is a breathing, living work of art.

How To Store Oil Paintings Safely

Now that we have ruled out freezing temperatures, let’s find out how to store oil paintings safely. 

To accomplish this, you need to keep a few factors in mind. You’ll need to pay attention to the amount of light to which you expose your artwork, the relative humidity, and the temperature of the storage environment.

According to the Smithsonian, the ideal storage spaceOpens in a new tab. for oil paintings is dust-free, as dark as possible, has a constant relative humidity of 45 to 55 %, and has a stable temperature range of 65 to 70°F (18 to 21°C). 

Before storage, cover the face of each painting with a sheet of acid-free paper, and wrap each artwork individually in some padding and a thick cardboard box. If you cannot store each painting in its own horizontal drawer, do not stack them on top of each other, as the pressure will damage the paintings. 

Instead, stack the wrapped oil paintings vertically side by side. Make sure the boxes are off the ground, as temperature fluctuations in flooring material will affect your oil paintings.

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How To Display Oil Paintings

Art is created to be observed, absorbed, and experienced. It’s understandable that you want to display your favorite oil paintings to enjoy the full effect of the benefits that art can provide. However, displaying oil-based artwork is more tricky than you’d think. Again, consider potential issues with exposure to light, moisture, and dust.

Hang your oil paintings away from windows, direct sunlight, and heat sources. The big empty space above your fireplace or that spot in the bathroom is not advisable, especially if the artwork is unvarnished or unframed.

Final Words

Mold, temperature fluctuations, and moisture are the biggest enemies of oil paintings. If you can maintain a stable storage environment for your artwork, it will bring you joy for many years.

This statement is true for valuable works by masters long gone as well as for the pieces you create at your humble easel. By following these storage tips, you can increase the longevity of your paintings and enjoy them for years to come.


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Caraca's self-taught artist based in the UK, Ines explores unconventional materials and sustainability.

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