Cracks in the Paint by Howard Rehs

How To Safely Navigate The Art Market: Cracks in the Paint

written by Howard Rehs of Rehs Galleries, New York. Published here with permission.

After I wrote my initial article on water and humidity (many years ago), one of our readers followed up with the following question:

If I see a painting and there are cracks in the paint, can I then assume that the reason for this is that there has been some damage from moisture?

Age Cracks

The answer to this question is: No. Moisture damage is only one of the possible causes. To begin with you must keep in mind that much like the human body as a work of art ages, cracks will begin to form. Works of art are made up of many layers (canvas, gesso, pigments, varnish, etc.) each of which will react differently over time to various changes in the climate. For instance, a work on canvas will expand (loosen) and contract (tighten) as the temperature and humidity levels change. I am sure that many of you have seen a painting where the surface looks wavy. Most often, this is caused by the expansion of the canvas due to higher than normal levels of humidity. As the humidity levels return to normal, the canvas will contract and become flat again. Should these changes continue to occur, over time they will begin to affect the various layers of the painting and cracks will appear. These cracks are a visible sign that a work of art has some age to it and usually present themselves as a network of straight or slightly curved lines that will be visible on both the back and front of the painting. The front of the canvas will appear to have raised lines while the back will have corresponding indented lines Many times these age cracks , as they are called, are not generally considered a serious condition issue and can be removed by a qualified conservator who will perform a vapor treatment to relax the various layers (basically flattening them). Once the treatment is completed, they will either spread a thin layer of glue on the back and re-stretch with work (if the cracking wasn’t too severe) or will re-line the painting in order to keep the cracks from reappearing. This type of re-lining is often termed as cosmetic.


The next, most common, type of cracking is referred to as craquelure. This term is used to describe the network of very fine, small, cracks that also begin to appear as a work of art ages – they are also referred to as ‘spidering’ since the resulting appearance is similar to a spider’s web. There is nothing wrong with these cracks and only need to be addressed if the edges are beginning to lift. It is important to remember that just because a work of art appears to have craquelure, or even age cracks, does not guarantee that it is old … forgers know how to replicate these effects on newer works of art.

Stretcher bar marks are another common sight on older paintings. Over time, the canvas will expand and contract. During times of expansion it may touch, and rest, against the wood stretcher bars. Over time a crease or line will form that follows the edge of the stretcher bars. These marks display themselves as straight horizontal and/or vertical lines on both the front and back of the canvas. Again, a qualified conservator can treat them, and many times lessen or completely remove their appearance from the paint surface. This would also be considered a cosmetic procedure.

Impact Crack

Impact cracks are also somewhat common and present themselves as circular cracks on the canvas … their appearance is similar to the ripples one sees after throwing a stone into the water. These cracks, which can take years to develop, are a sign that something hit the canvas at the center of the innermost circle (corner of a piece of furniture, etc).

Crackle is a term used to describe the network of small cracks that can appear in any layer of the painting. Crackle in the structural layers of the painting, including the paint surface, would be considered more serious than crackle in the protective varnish layer since the varnish can be easily removed by a conservator and replaced with a new one; thereby completely removing the crackle.

Now I will touch on a few of the more serious cracks.

Pigment Separation

The first of these are what we refer to as pigment separation — a more serious version of craquelure. Instead of a fine network of straight and slightly curved cracks, now the work of art displays wide cracks where the paint has split open and exposed the under-paint or ground.

Another very similar problem is referred to as alligatoring . As the names suggest, the appearance of these cracks is much like the skin of an alligator … wide areas where the paint surface, during the drying process, has shrunk and the lower layer is visible.

A related issue is Bitumen — a dark colored paint made from coal tar that was often used in 19th Century Victorian paintings. As the pigment ages, a chemical reaction in the paint causes it to shrink and the area looks as though it is blistering.

A good conservator can repair any of the above-mentioned problems by filling in the low points (or spaces) and in-painting those areas to match the surrounding colors. However, as you can guess, the work of art will now have areas of in-painting and its value will be altered depending on the severity of the problem and how much restoration was required.

It is interesting to note that there are some artists who’s entire body of work is plagued by these problems. The American artist Albert Pinkham Ryder is a great example, and if you want to own one of his works, these are condition issues you will have to live with. For artists where these issues are seen occasionally, it is best to stay away from the problem works and concentrate on those in better condition.

Crazing , which usually develops due to excessive heat, is another serious issue and presents itself as small ridges in the paint layer. If a work heats up to the point where the paint becomes pliable and, at the same time, the canvas begins to shrink, the paint surface will be pushed together forming ridges. If this happens, the painting’s surface has been altered and will, or really should, lessen its value. There are ways for a conservator to reduce, or even eliminate, the visual effect of this problem, but all require further alteration of the painting’s surface. I personally remember watching a conservator place a 19th century painting by Monchablon, that had some crazing, on the hot table and heat it up to a point where the paint had begun to liquefy (I know that sounds crazy). Then, while still on the hot table, they were able to press down, with a small tool, on the crazed areas and completely remove them. Not the best thing to do to a painting as this procedure also alters the artist’s original work.

In the end it is important to remember that condition is a very important element of a work’s value and to the untrained buyer, many of these problems can be masked. Make sure you ask questions about any work you are considering and try to understand its condition. Not all paintings are in pristine (untouched) condition and some level of restoration is acceptable, but do try and stay away from those works that have extensive condition problems … especially those with large areas of pigment separation, alligatoring, crazing and/or bitumen.


On a somewhat related note, is it not fair to accept that digital copies of artworks are the future?

Here’s the thing: of the thousands of artworks that I’ve loved and venerated, more than 99.9% I never saw in real life, but rather in books or online.

I’ve always known that it’s utterly impractical to expect to see artworks in real life – they’re scattered all over the world and most are in private hands – and though it might be a slightly luddite position to take, I consider that I can imbibe the essence of a work by looking at a digital copy.

Of course digital copies lead to distortions. In one case I remember how a Van Gogh painting I actually got to see, looked less vivid than in a book, where it’s hues had been rather beautifully enhanced.

Similarly, when artists take photos of their work to post online, there is a transformation. Some artists feel they lose something, in my own case though I sometimes felt like I gained (and am therefore cheating people!)
It’s just everything I’ve ever learned about archival properties of art leads me to the same sad conclusion that every work has a time limit, and that it’s a battle against the entropy of the universe to preserve it.

In that sense, the digital option, seems like a pleasant sort of get out, notwithstanding that a facsimile can never convey all the nuance of the original.

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I’m not sure about that as, in many contexts within the art experience, a great number of aesthetic responses can be linked to our judgements about how “close” we are to the artist (contagion.) Even with official reproductions—collectors strive to get the lowest number possible in a print run.

There are some strong studies on this out there. For example, Newman, George E., and Paul Bloom. “Art and authenticity: The importance of originals in judgments of value.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141.3 (2012): 558.

ABSTRACT: “Why are original artworks valued more than identical duplicates? The present studies explore 2 mechanisms underlying the special value of original artwork: the assessment of the art object as a unique creative act (performance) and the degree of physical contact with the original artist (contagion). Across 5 experiments, participants were exposed to hypothetical scenarios in which an original object was duplicated. The type of object varied across experiments (e.g., a painting vs. a piece of furniture) as did the circumstances surrounding the creation of the original object and the duplicate. Overall, the results support assessments of performance and contagion as key factors underlying the value of original artwork, and they are consistent with the conclusion that the discrepancy in value between original artworks and perfect duplicates derives from people’s lay theories about the domain of art, rather than from associations with particular kinds of art or certain cases of forgery.

PDF via Yale University:

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Interesting stuff. I read some of the article and see that contagion – degree of physical contact with the artist – applies to the work of art, rather than the viewer. (Otherwise we would have trouble explaining the popularity of dead artists).

I think the contagion argument makes sense in the same way that I wouldn’t want to visit a replica of the Pyramids, or see a copy of the Bayeux tapestry, or the cave paintings of Lascaux.

But for some reason when it comes to high art, as opposed to architecture/crafts etc, I personally find the work takes on a special significance of its own, beyond it’s mere physical reality.

If we look at literature or music, there is no such thing as the original. Rather every copy is identical to the original. Yes there might be historic interest in seeing the original manuscript or musical score. But these artefacts are understood to be quite different to the artwork they propagated.

In this sense songs and books are memes that live in the heads of people.

And for me personally I try to treat artworks in the same fashion. But I appreciate most people don’t do that, hence the results of the paper. I guess their relationship with art is more like that of someone who buys a lot of books and treasures them, but never really reads them.