When scanning a painting for the first time, examine its condition and view it under a black light to discover if it has had new paint added to it. Under the light, does the signature or any important element of it appear florescent? Does the canvas have a glue lining or is it streaked, crackled, cupped, rippled, punctured or torn?
When a person can answer these questions, his or her ability to view art with a critical eye will assist in judging whether or not an artwork should be bought or passed. The more a person learns and understands the fewer mistakes will be made.
In-paint on an artwork refers to paint that has been added to a painting after the original is laid down and completely dry. Under the scrutiny of ultraviolet light, in-paint becomes fluorescent and newly added synthetic organic pigments appear to glow or be luminescent.
To see if in-paint exists, bring an oil painting into a dark room and look at it under the scrutiny of a black light. The less light in the room, the more effectively in-paint “glows” or seems to come forward as a purple-black color.
A lined canvas suggests a painting previously has been restored and that it could have in-paint on its surface. Study it under an ultraviolet light to discover what amount of in-paint (if any) there is before making a purchase. The more in-paint a canvas has, the less desirable it is because in-paint strongly suggests that someone other than the original artist painted those areas. However, some painters rework canvases and what might appear to be in-paint added by a second party may, in fact, be from the hand of the painting’s originator. When in doubt, consult an expert.
Forgers often mix pigments with glue to “stick” their painted additions permanently onto a painting’s surface. A black light will cause glue mixtures of in-paint to glow with a whitish tint. If a signature or any other aspect of an oil painting appears fluorescent under a black light it generally means the paint has been added and it is the added paint that is emitting light. However, certain umber, brown and red pigments from the 17th-19th centuries fluoresce naturally.
Ultraviolet light helps to expose forgeries, reveal old in-paint applied during restorations and display lines added to a face (turning a frown to a smile), to boats (changing an English flag to that of an American ship) and so forth. Black lights can expose additions and enhancements made by forgers and restorers. If a signature is florescent the painting’s authenticity should be questioned. Most collector-investors prefer paintings that have no more than 5 percent in-paint.
In the shady corners of the art world, some people know how to trick the black light, but few will admit it. “Tricking a black light” is when new oil paint is applied to canvases and it does not fluoresce under a black light’s rays. In various ways, forgers take out florescent aspects from oil paint so that under a black light additions to the original canvas are not easily detected.
Oftentimes, “restorers” use non-florescent acrylic to make additions to oil paintings, but acrylics appear dull when compared to oil, cannot be varnished and often turn white or a dull gray under a black light. When left unvarnished, acrylic looks as if it is floating above an oil painting’s surface and it can chip or fall off an oil surface. The astute collector sees these variables and understands what they mean before making a purchase.
Regardless of technique, style or school of thought, study a painting to identify anything within it that looks off balanced or untrue to nature. In an abstract painting, notice if colors, shapes, forms and lines are unified in a dynamic, mobile, interesting design or whole. When scrutinizing representational art, see if a sailboat glides through water or if it looks as if it has no movement.
Does a boat appear to be in water or does it look as if it is floating miraculously in air above the water? Do ducks seem to be flying through air or do they look as if they are wooden decoys pasted in space and incapable of flight? Do action figures appear to be moving in space or do they seem frozen and stagnant? Does rain or snow look as if it is falling from clouds to the earth or does it look as if blotches or dots of paint mistakenly hit the canvas? Are skies an integral part of the whole or are they painted like flat screens? Do objects, figures and aspects of nature seem as if they have weight, density and volume or do they appear weightless, without mass, unnaturally collapsed and deflated?
Astutely studying a painting’s quality and condition is an art!
Patricia Jobe Pierce is a freelance writer, art historian, art dealer-consultant, certified AAA appraiser, public speaker, photographer and American art authenticator for museums, auction houses and collectors. She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in 1965, is owner and director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. in Nantucket and Hingham, Mass., and is author of many works, including, "Art Collecting & Investing: The Inner Workings and the Underbelly of the Art World." For more of her submissions, Click Here Now.
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