Painting Conservation

Sunrise From Whitehead 8 August 1940, James Perry Wilson, oil on canvasboard, 12X16

We had to make a tough decision today to not hang one of JP Wilson’s best paintings because the paint in the sky was flaking and might be damaged in the public gallery.  Wilson painted his skies with oil paint thinned with turpentine only.  This gives the sky a very matte finish which enhances the illusion of atmospheric depth.  Below the horizon, he would sometimes mix his paint with an oil medium that imparts a glossier finish and works well in the stronger values of the foreground area.

Oil medium acts as a binder that adds a flexible, rubbery quality to the paint , lengthening its lifespan.  By using only turpentine, Wilson made a drier paint with less binder to hold it together which, as we see here, sometimes starts to crack and break apart over time.

Close-up of the cracking sky in Wilson's painting.

Wilson painted the same way in his diorama painting.  All paint above the horizon was mixed only with turpentine, below he might use an oil medium.  There have been problems over time with paint flaking in the Peabody dioramas, but not like the kind seen in the smaller paintings.   My guess is that the paint was applied more thickly in the dioramas and the shells are more stable than the canvasboards of the smaller paintings.  The damage seen in the dioramas is usually caused by other factors like an external water leak or the canvas glued to the shell underneath pulling away.  I always dread diorama repairs like this because matching his sky paint is almost impossible and I won’t even try.  If I ever have to fix the sky, I search high and low for any fragments of the paint that may have fallen off into the foreground and try to glue them back or we hire a professional painting conservator to repair it correctly.

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2 Comments on “Painting Conservation”

  1. Sean Murtha Says:

    Mike-

    Wow, that IS a gorgeous one! Is it Monhegan?

    -Sean


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