The Art of Preservation: How to Store Paintings, Sculptures and More

Lubabah Memon | May 20, 2016 @ 3:00 PM

Whether you’re an art collector or an aspiring artist, finding a safe place to store your art can be difficult.  You may have a studio at home, but there’s only so much you can keep in there before you end up overwhelmed by the towering masterpieces.  Besides, the more art you cram into your home, the higher the chance is for accidents to occur.  Instead of risking your life’s work, put it into a storage unit.  Having a designated space for your art will make it much easier for you to keep track of what you have, and it’ll also clear up some space for you to work on your new creations.

Prep the Paintings

Paintings are very delicate and must be handled with the utmost care.  You want to make sure you’re putting your artwork away in its best condition and then maintaining that condition.

Start by cleaning your paintings with a microfiber cloth to remove any dust.  Wipe metal with a little bit of oil to reduce the risk of rust, and spray polish on wood to add a layer of protection.  Once the paintings have been cleaned, wrap them in protective, breathable coverings so bugs can’t get to them (Your facility manager should be scheduling pest control to keep the facility clean.).  Do not use plastic or bubble wrap to pack your paintings because they will block air circulation and trap condensation.  Instead, use dry materials like brown paper, cotton, foam, felt, and cardboard corners to properly pack the artwork.  The best way to wrap a painting is to put it in a cotton sheet and then in brown paper.  Put frame corners on all of the corners, and place the wrapped artwork into a box.  All paintings should be supported with a backing of either wood or cardboard to prevent breakage.  Once the paintings are in their respective boxes, fill the boxes with paper so they don’t move in the box during transportation.

Framed artwork should be stored vertically, never flat, because it can collapse under its own weight.  More sensitive pieces can crack or puncture from the weight of other pieces that are stacked on top of them.  Ideally, you should store your artwork on shelves, but that’s difficult to do in a storage unit.  Instead, opt for pallets or wooden slabs to keep the art off the ground so you can protect it from water damage.  Water damage is less likely to occur if you have an indoor unit, but sometimes neighboring units can pose a hazard.  Ask the manager if the facility has built in precautions against flood damage such as units made from bricks or cement, both of which are flood damage-resistant materials.

Unframed work can be stored in plastic sleeves, but make sure the paint is rolled to the outside so there’s less of a chance of cracking and warping.  Acrylic and latex-based paints are a lot more flexible and easy to roll than oil paints.


Storing sculptures is a lot harder and they definitely take up a lot more space.  Stone sculptures are very prone to environmental decay due to weather, pollutants, salts, and repeated wetting and drying.  If you’re storing stone sculptures and live on the coast, be sure to store more inland.

Ceramic and glass sculptures are not as sensitive to changes in the environment, but some have unstable glazes that may react to changes in weather and cause cracks to develop on the surface of the piece.  The biggest cause of damage for these pieces is breakage during cleaning and while being transported in inadequate packing.

Before storing your sculptures, clean them by dusting them with a soft brush.  Cotton can get caught on rough surfaces and edges, which will leave fibers behind and can cause damage.  Carefully bubble wrap each piece so it is safe in storage, and transport them in heavily padded containers to avoid breakage.

What the Facility Must Have

There are some key factors to consider when selecting a storage facility in which you can store your artwork.  The most important thing is to make sure that you rent a climate controlled unit.  Have the facility’s staff keep the temperature of your unit at 70 degrees for best results.  If you live in a particularly humid area, try to find a facility that also has humidity control and have them keep the humidity between 40% and 50%.  Humidity and moisture can cause expansion and contraction of materials, which can lead to yellowing of paper, growth of mold, and fading of colors.

Also, be sure to find a drive up unit so you’re not carrying art around for long periods of time, leaving it susceptible to accidents.

An Artist's Tools

If you’re storing your art, you might also want to store some of the materials that you use to create the magic as well.  If you want your stuff to last, you should definitely invest in some plastic, airtight bins.  However, you might want to be a little careful of how long you’re storing these tools because they all have different shelf lives.  Paintbrushes can be stored for many years as long as they’re in good condition.  Just make sure you wash and dry them before storing them.

Oil paints are the longest lasting art materials, with a shelf life of 30 to 40 years.  To keep the paint intact, keep it in an airtight container in a dry, cool, and dark place.  Avoid changes in temperature and keep them clean to avoid any damage.  You know the paint needs to be thrown out when the oil splits from the pigment.

Watercolors last about two to three years depending on the binding agent in the paint.  Over time, the pigment in watercolors separates from its own binding agent (Arabic gum) and the tubes get hard.  You can re-hydrate the paint yourself and make it last about 10 to 15 years, but it usually ends up lowering the overall quality.

Acrylic paint is a synthetic-based material so it can’t expire.  However, it has a high risk of developing mold, and it dries out very quickly.  You can buy things like acrylic wetting agents and mixers that help rejuvenate the dried paint.  It’s best to just use the paint quickly because its shelf life is about two to five years or until they start to smell sour or dry out.  The easiest way to tell if the paint has gone bad is to smell it—it develops a sour, mildew odor when it has gone bad.

Charcoal and graphite are the best things to store.  Both of these materials never go bad as long as they are not crushed or wet.

Besides putting your materials in airtight bins, be sure to rent a climate controlled unit and have the staff control the humidity as much as they possibly can.

You Can’t Put a Price on Art

Your art is definitely priceless, but getting something in return is better than nothing when your unit is faced with catastrophe.  Depending on where you live, you might have to deal with things like floods, fires, and other disasters—natural or man made.  Instead of risking all of your work, make sure you get insurance for your belongings.

When you are putting your stuff in a storage unit, keep an inventory of your items and take pictures of everything.  Write down estimated costs and if you’re not sure, get your work valued by a professional so it’s not hard to make insurance claims if some unforeseen damage or loss occurs.

Insurance policies vary in coverage, so first talk to a facility manager to see what kind of damage is likely to occur in your area—water, debris, accidents, natural disasters, fires—so you know what you’re up against. Since mold, mildew and theft are usually the greatest threats to art, make sure you’re protected against those.

Overall, storing your artwork and your materials can be a bit tedious and quite challenging.  You may feel like it would be simpler to just keep these things in a closet at home, but the little extra effort that it takes to store your masterpieces at a storage facility will definitely be worthwhile.  Not only will you create space at home for more artwork, but you’ll also be able to keep your stuff safe and preserve it long term.

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