Public Art Conservation Tips for Painted Sculpture

Maintaining Outdoor Painted Sculpture

painted sculpture LOVE in NYC by Robert Indiana

All art must be maintained whether indoors or out, painting, photography, or sculpture.

The cost, and challenges of maintaining a Public Art collection are large and should not be underestimated. This is especially true when the collection is kept outside, as much of the world’s sculptures are.

Every type of sculpture has it’s own conservation methods.

Some stone sculpture is sealed to protect it from the elements. But the sealant needs to be reapplied periodically. Other stones are left au natural, which means that over time they will deteriorate. How much time depends on the weather conditions and the makeup of the rock itself.

Bronze sculpture has a patina that is applied. To keep it looking like the original, these works must be periodically cleaned and a patina artist should be called in. Of course, many communities prefer to let the sculpture’s patina evolve with the weather. Who hasn’t seen the nearly black sculptures or green ones, that were once bronze, now aged over hundreds of years.

Have you ever thought about how weather affects painted sculpture?

Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture is an example of a very public art piece was restored, not for the first time–and that the piece had been repainted using different colors than Indiana had originally designed.

philadelphia painted sculpture LOVE by Robert Indiana

To help curators and collectors retain the intended colors of painted sculptures, The Getty Conservation Institute has issued a paper by Julia Langenbacher and Rachel Rivenc, with contributions from Anna Flavin, titled “Documenting Painted Surfaces for Outdoor Painted Sculptures, A Manual of Laboratory and Field Test Methods”

Sculptures will often undergo several cycles of repainting in their lifetime. It is therefore of utmost importance to ensure that new paints provide a surface that closely reflects the work’s original appearance (e.g., color, texture, and gloss level).

Guidelines have now been established that will help the art world maintain their collections. There a paint “coupons” that anyone from artists to conservators can use to document the exact color desired. This then would allow for precise restoration, without mistakenly painting a piece purple instead of blue, for example. It would also allow an artist to create a series of pieces using the same colors.

Consider the benefit of having limited edition sculptures that are installed around the globe. For the artist, this standard would allow their work to remain consistent no matter where in the world the piece is collected.  Or, if like Indiana, they want to use DIFFERENT colors for each local, there isn’t the issue of a future generation thinking “their” painted sculpture shoule be the same colors as those found in a different collection. And for art lovers, they don’t have to wonder which is the “right” color.

And, think of the benefit to curators who don’t have to guess what the colors of a painted sculpture should actually be. Not to mention save them the embarassment of having spent a lot of money on restoration, only to be ridiculed for the end result.

Case in point, the sculpture of St George that is making waves for the poor job on the wooden painted sculpture by a local arts and crafts instructor hired by the Spanish church that houses the piece.

St George painted sculpture before and after restoration


This Getty Conservation Institute’s publication is available free of charge at:

This information courtesy of The Getty Conservation Institute

Read the article about the restoration of St George. Photo courtesy of Artus Restauracion Patrimonio

NYC’s LOVE by Robert Indiana, photo from Wikipedia

Philadelphia’s LOVE by Robert Indiana, photo by Matt Harris on Flickr