Condition Reporting – Paintings. Part I: Introduction – Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI) Notes 10/6

Introduction: What is a condition report?

A condition report is a written and/or electronically filed record that details the condition of a painting and its frame based on a close examination of these objects. When used with photographs and illustrations, the report clearly records the physical condition of the painting and frame at that time. When kept systematically, condition reports document any changes over time. These changes may be caused by: natural aging of sensitive materials, accidental damage, vandalism, infestation, inappropriate display or storage conditions, improper handling or inappropriate packaging for travel, as well as any alteration to the work due to a restoration treatment. A condition survey of an entire collection, based on object type, can provide a gallery with the means to manage and preserve their collection, especially if the data is stored in a digital format.

Information collected in condition surveys can be used by a variety of museum professionals. Conservators, curators and collection managers may use that information to identify those objects most urgently requiring treatment or to prioritize treatment interventions across the collection. Additionally, exhibit planners can identify works that are exhibit-ready or which require moderate treatment to be exhibit-ready. Conservators can identify those works most at risk during travel and exhibit, and preparators can pre-determine crating and shipping requirements for travelling exhibits. Registrars and researchers can access information using digitized condition survey reports which capture details relating to production, materials, history and provenance.

This Note will highlight a variety of report formats used for specific purposes: the detailed incoming baseline and purpose-based condition reports, as well as the shorter cursory inspection and cumulative condition reports. This Note will also describe why, when and where to do these reports. The formats suggested in this Note will help determine the information to be gathered during condition reporting.

Why do a condition report?

  • A systematic and up-to-date condition report system is the foundation of any collection's care and management program. It allows the owner or custodian to track changes in the object's condition and to intercede with either preventive or treatment measures, when required.
  • The condition report is a central component of the decision-making process for a painting and its frame before these are acquired, displayed or loaned.
  • A condition report carried out before acquisition gives a buyer the information required to gauge whether he or she can provide the necessary care for the work of art as well as information on its overall condition, ongoing problems and any hazards, such as fungal or insect infestation.
  • In addition to indicating whether a painting and frame are stable enough to be displayed or loaned, the condition report will highlight restrictions or requirements for handling, packing or storing.
  • Ongoing condition reports can highlight the need for upgrading storage or display facilities and can help establish priorities and budgets for both.
  • Condition reports track any changes that happen to the painting during exhibit or loan. When properly maintained, these condition reports can pinpoint when and where a change in condition has taken place and whether to remove a painting from an ongoing exhibition.
  • In addition to detailing the physical state of the painting or frame, the condition report also collects information on the painting's materials, artist's technique and display history. This history is recorded on labels and tags fixed to the painting's verso or auxiliary support or to the back of the frame.
  • Carefully maintained documentation is a critical element in settling insurance claims and can, in certain circumstances, be taken into account in forensic investigations.

When to do a condition report

Condition reports are normally carried out under the following circumstances:

At the time of acquisition

The first documented examination allows the collection manager or conservator to determine fairly rapidly whether the painting and frame, at the time of acquisition, are in good, fair or poor condition. It can also be determined if the painting and frame require extensive stabilization or restoration. The initial examination may also identify conditions or materials that will require specialized care when the object is either in storage or on display.

During storage

Although a painting may remain stable for many years, it is not unusual for deterioration to accelerate or for some condition in the storage area to present a hazard (e.g. water leaks). Regular inspection and documentation will ensure that paintings and frames at risk are identified and that appropriate action is taken, when necessary.

Before placing a painting and its frame on display

A painting chosen for display must be examined to determine its overall stability. The examiner should either update the existing condition report or begin a new report. The condition report ideally contains pertinent details such as recommended light levels and any special handling and hanging instructions.

Periodically, while on display

Paintings on display should be inspected regularly. Any changes to the condition of a painting or its frame should be noted and a course of action determined, based on the change in condition.

Before, during and after travel and loan

A record of a painting's condition before, during and after travel and loan is necessary. These condition reports, carried out by both the loaning and borrowing institutions, are necessary to ensure the safety of the painting and frame and to document when any change in condition or new damage occurs.

Immediately after damage has occurred

When damage occurs, it must be carefully documented, stating the nature, cause, time and location of the incident.

Before any conservation or restoration treatment

Before undertaking any conservation or restoration treatment, a report clearly outlining the condition, deterioration, damages and, if possible, the cause or causes of deterioration or damage must be completed.

As part of a collection survey

Collection surveys include information on condition aspects of the work of art as well as details on materials and type(s) of construction, inscriptions, labels, the presence or absence of a frame, liner and glazing, special requirements (e.g. light and humidity levels) for storage, display and handling, and recommendations for treatment and ongoing care. The more detailed the information compiled within the survey, the more searchable and, therefore, valuable the survey for a range of museum professionals.

Condition report types and formats

It is important to establish a standard, systematic method of examining and reporting so that condition records can be easily interpreted and updated. Consult CCI Notes 10/7 Condition Reporting – Paintings. Part II: Examination Techniques and a Checklist and 10/11 Condition Reporting – Paintings. Part III: Glossary for more information. A standardized terminology that describes material aspects and condition is critical for digitized collection or condition surveys where information is searchable.

There are four basic types of condition reports that, when compiled, constitute a comprehensive condition record for a painting and its frame. These four condition report types are carried out at different times and for different reasons:

  • baseline condition report
  • cursory inspection report
  • purpose-based condition report
  • cumulative condition report

Condition reports can be written in narrative form or point form, or entries can be made based on a pre-determined checklist. Checklists can be used on their own or incorporated into longer narrative reports. There are no length restrictions in the narrative-based condition report, and the inclusion of checklists into this format allows for specific prompts that provide readily accessible information. The checklist format, used on its own, is restrictive where unusual or extensive damage occurs. The combination of narrative with checklist insertions works well for the longer baseline and purpose-based condition reports. The baseline condition report is the most likely format for recording within a condition survey. Shorter, cursory inspection reports are meant to briefly record new damage, the date on which it happened, the circumstances, if known, and any action taken. Such information can be maintained in an accessible hard copy and in digital formats. If a cumulative condition report, maintained during travel and loan of a work of art, identifies new damage, it can be recorded in a short narrative on a form provided by the loaning institution. Photographs are an invaluable addition to any condition report. They should be used to document all damages.

Baseline condition report

A sample baseline condition report form, which can be adapted by the user, is provided at the end of this Note for paintings on canvas or rigid supports (Sample Report 1, found in the Appendix). The baseline condition report records information collected during the initial, thorough examination on acquisition, or it can be adapted to the requirements of a condition survey of a collection. The report should include both written and photographic documentation of a work of art. This report establishes a baseline against which subsequent examinations can be compared. Each field should have a summary qualitative ranking system that quickly identifies the condition as: excellent, good, fair, poor or very poor. The baseline condition report should include all relevant information on the materials, construction and condition of the painting. Details from inscriptions and labels fixed to the verso of the frame, painting and auxiliary support should be recorded. Narrative information is recorded alongside checklists and space for narrative entries is expanded, as needed. Because paintings can be very complex, it is customary to concentrate on one element of its structure at a time. Consequently, the baseline condition report is often broken down into the following sections:

  • Identification of the work (artist or attribution, title, medium, signature and date, if present; dimensions of painting and frame, presence of backing board and glazing, accession number, if present; and owner or custodian);
  • Painting and frame status (this condition summary will tell the reader if a painting or frame can be safely handled and if treatment is urgently required);
  • Additional information (includes inscriptions and labels on canvas, auxiliary or rigid support);
  • Description of the paint layer or layers (method of application, e.g. impasto, thin washes, brush or knife application) followed by condition details;
  • If a ground layer is present, its description and condition should be documented;
  • Description of a surface coating (varnish) and condition;
  • Description of primary support (canvas or rigid support such as wood, hardboard, metal) followed by condition details;
  • Description and condition details of an auxiliary support for paintings on canvas (Auxiliary supports provide tensioning to the primary support. These tensioning structures can be a stretcher, whose joints expand with wooden keys or with inset turnbuckles, or a strainer with fixed joints. An auxiliary support in the form of a rigid board can also provide support if a painting has been glued to it or attached at the edges);
  • Description and condition of frame;
  • Recommendations for handling, display and storage, plus any need for treatment (painting and frame); and
  • Identification of examiner and date of examination.

A description of what to look for and how to record information in sections above is given in CCI Note 10/7 Condition Reporting – Paintings. Part II: Examination Techniques and a Checklist. Sample Report 1, found in the Appendix, can also be used with the checklist in CCI Note 10/7.

Once this initial baseline condition report has been completed, future examinations in the form of cursory inspection reports or cumulative reports, only need to record changes in condition. As well, these last two report types can be carried out in regular, brief examinations while a painting is hanging on display or on arrival at a borrowing institution and upon departure from that institution.

Cursory inspection report

The cursory inspection report details any change in condition noted during routine, periodic examinations of a painting and frame while on display or in storage. This report does not repeat condition details recorded in the baseline report but will document new or unrecorded damages or changes in condition. Minor changes are recorded for future reference; major or repeated changes alert staff to the need for conservation treatment as well as for identification and mitigation of the cause of the damage.

This report is an important aspect of collections management because it requires that works of art be inspected regularly. The frequency of the inspections will vary with the institution, the number of staff available to carry them out and the nature of the collection. When paintings are on display, ideally, the works of art should be inspected weekly. Works of art in storage identified as fragile or particularly sensitive should be examined monthly. Objects considered to be at minimum risk can be examined every six months to a year. For large collections, an examination schedule can be organized that supports an ongoing systematic inspection.

Sample Report 2 (found in the Appendix) provides a cursory inspection report format. Two brief examples of information recorded in a cursory report are presented below.

Table 1 : examples of information recorded in an inspection report on two different dates

Painting " X "
Fill in details of artist, title and accession number

Date Location Examiner Comments/Action taken
December 27, 2015 Gallery 5, 2nd floor T. White Painting and frame are in good condition.
January 2, 2016 Gallery 5, 2nd floor J. Smith Tiny loss from bottom right outer corner of frame not previously noted. Conservation staff to be notified – frame should be checked for any incipient losses.

Purpose-based condition report

A purpose-based condition report is completed before a painting leaves its institution on loan. This report is based on an examination carried out by the loaning institution immediately before the loan. The baseline condition report, as well as cursory inspection reports, can be used to help create the purpose-based report. This purpose-based report is not as extensive as the baseline condition report and needs only to detail particular condition problems. It is important to record any feature that is distinct from an undamaged condition (cracks, scratches to the paint and varnish, areas of discolouration or staining on the paint surface or canvas, old paint loss, small bulges in the canvas, etc.). This allows the borrowing institution(s), over the course of the loan, to determine if damage has occurred during the loan period. It is extremely useful to provide a clear photograph of the painting and frame to accompany the purpose-based condition report as well as several photocopies of this image or images on which borrowing institutions can record any new damages.

A purpose-based condition report should be created to document any new or previous damage that will be subsequently restored. This condition report, along with the treatment proposal and treatment report, must be maintained as part of the condition record of the painting and frame.

Cumulative condition reports

During travelling exhibitions, any changes in the condition of a painting and its frame are recorded in cumulative condition reports. The cumulative condition reports begin with the purpose-based condition report (described above) prepared by the loaning institution. As the artwork arrives at and leaves each borrowing institution, incoming and outgoing condition reports are generated. These ongoing or cumulative reports identify when and where damage may have occurred and allow both the loaning and borrowing institutions to determine a course of action (in-situ stabilization, return of painting to loaning institution, etc.).

Documentation with images

A dated photographic record of a painting, both its front and back as well as the frame, is vital to the condition report, especially the baseline and purpose-based reports. Image-based condition reporting has become popular, especially as digital technology for manipulation, marking and storage of images is rapidly evolving. The primary photographs required in a condition report are taken using normal lighting (e.g. either daylight, daylight-balanced bulbs or tungsten bulbs using a filter). Overall photographs should be taken, as well as details of areas of concern. Additional information about surface details, such as deformations to paint or canvas can be photographed by placing a light source at an oblique angle (raking angle) to the unframed work of art. Be aware that light sources that emit heat can cause damage to a painting on canvas. Heat from a bulb can cause very rapid localized expansion of the threads resulting in bulging and rippling of the canvas in this area. Ensure that the light source, in this case, is not close to the painting and that lights are only switched on when required for the taking of the photograph. Date all photographs, include the name of the photographer and specify the light used to take the photograph. If possible, include a colour spectrum in the photographs.

More specialized photography using ultraviolet (UV) light can record information about the method of application of a varnish layer, as well as its presence or absence and possible inpainting to areas of damage. Photographs using infrared-sensitive film can reveal underdrawings and other details not visible in full spectrum light. Information obtained from UV fluorescence and infrared photography of paint and varnish surfaces provides additional insights into the condition of the painting and artist technique. These photographic techniques may not be required for all works of art; however, if they demonstrate particular condition issues, they should be included with baseline and purpose-based condition reports. Printed copies of photographs from a baseline or purpose-based condition report should accompany the cursory or cumulative reports. These copies can be marked up directly, or markings can be made on transparent overlays using permanent markers. Where a photograph will not show specific details, a drawing can be made.

Where to do a condition report: the work space

Examination to document a painting's condition can be carried out in the display area, for a cursory condition report, and in a storage area or in a special-purpose work space when a more detailed inspection is required. It is not usually necessary to remove a painting from its frame for condition reporting carried out during travelling exhibitions.

For a thorough examination, it is best to move the work of art to a protected area where the painting can be safely placed and unframed. This work space should include the following features:

  • good security (lockable doors, unbreakable glazing on windows, alarm system, limited access);
  • stable relative humidity and temperature conditions that do not deviate from the levels where the painting and/or frame have been either stored or displayed (consult CCI Note 10/4 Environmental Guidelines for Paintings for more guidance on recommended levels);
  • easy access to either storage or display spaces (includes proximity and door allowances);
  • uncluttered space and space without competing functions (separated from other work areas or tables and from areas where food and drinks are allowed);
  • good lighting (natural and artificial; consult the section "Lighting Techniques for Examination" in CCI Note 10/7 Condition Reporting – Paintings. Part II: Examination Techniques and a Checklist for descriptions of various types of lighting for examination);
  • accessible, padded, non-snagging table surfaces, padded blocks and easels;
  • access to a dark area for both photography and examination using UV light (if windows are present, light can be reduced or eliminated with light-blocking curtains or blinds);
  • storage space for paintings and frames (ideally, this would include storage racks or an additional prepared table where uncrated paintings waiting to be examined, returned to storage or prepared for packing and shipping can be placed after condition reporting);
  • storage space for small tools, hanging wires and hooks, rabbet padding material, plastic wrap, etc. (additional space for the short-term storage of crates and materials, such as foam wrap, plastic wrap and rigid sheeting, plus tools and an equipment trolley would be helpful).

This Note describes an ideal examination space. This may not be achievable where space is at a premium or where the number of paintings in the collection does not warrant a sole-purpose work space. Many museums may have the capacity to set aside space for examination and condition reporting in their storage and preparation area.

Appendix: Sample report templates

(PDF version, 195 KB)

This PDF can be downloaded then printed and used to complete either of the two sample report templates:

  • Baseline Condition Report: Paintings and Their Frames
  • Cursory Inspection Report

Bibliography

Arnold, R. and W. Baker. Basic Handling of Paintings, revised. CCI Notes 10/13. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Conservation Institute, 2018.

Canadian Conservation Institute. Condition Reporting – Paintings. Part III: Glossary, revised. CCI Notes 10/11. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Conservation Institute, 2017.

Carlyle, L., W. Baker and H. McKay. Condition Reporting – Paintings. Part II: Examination Techniques and a Checklist, revised. CCI Notes 10/7. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Conservation Institute, 2018.

Centre de conservation du Québec (CCQ). "Constats d'état." Québec, QC: gouvernement du Québec, 2012. (Available in French only.)

Museums and Galleries of New South Wales. Condition Reports: The Essentials. The Rocks, Australia: Museums and Galleries of NSW, [n.d.].

Spafford-Ricci, S., T. Fraser and M. Smith. "A Comprehensive Conservation Survey of the Vancouver Art Gallery Permanent Collection." Journal of the Canadian Association for Conservation 27 (2002), pp. 25–37.

Posilev, Yosi, "The iPad: Condition Reporting for the XXI century or the Use of the iPad as an Image-based tool for Condition Reporting and Location Marking for Scientific Analysis." The Western Association for Art Conservation Newsletter 33,1 (2011), pp. 11–13.

By Leslie Carlyle
Revised by Wendy Baker and Helen McKay in 2016 and by Wendy Baker in 2018

Originally published in 1993

© Government of Canada, Canadian Conservation Institute, 2018

Cat. No.: NM95-57/10-6-2018E-PDF
ISSN 1928-1455
ISBN 978-0-660-28388-3

Également publié en version française.

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