Most often the process involves a relatively “young” painting whose sheer size makes some kind of alteration of its’ normal stretched structure necessary in order to be able to remove it from the studio, gallery, or museum.
The process of folding a stretched canvas is often seen as more desirable than totally removing the canvas from its stretcher which is then broken down into pieces. The canvas then rolled - face out - onto a lined cardboard concrete form with the largest diameter that is practical. Sometimes neither option is available.
The following real life situation is contributed by Vince Como from WelPak out of NYC.
The Wet Fold
As a professional Art Handler in New York City there are many challenges one runs into on an almost daily basis from paintings and objects either constructed in a studio or purchased by a collector without large enough doorways, elevators, or stairwells, to sensitive works which have to be suspended with minimal contact between the actual work of art and the packing material, all the while contending with traffic, loading zones, docks, etc. Needless to say, when you run into a single job that has several of these elements involved it becomes a more interesting challenge.
We were recently contacted to collect and remove three large, wet paintings from an artist’s studio for transport. Two of the works were able to be placed into Travel-frames on site and removed from the studio, but the third had to be folded to be removed. As I’m sure most art handlers are aware, standard practice for folding a painting includes a Sonotube running the length of the folded area to provide stability and braces to lock the tube and stretcher bars into place and hold it there while the work is moved out.
In order to perform this wet fold we didn’t have the option of anything coming into any contact with the painted surface, so we fabricated two wooden half-circles out of ¾ in plywood to ensure its rigidity (They basically ended up looking like wooden tombstones). These were then braced into place by 1x6’s extending horizontally off of the plywood, and 2 more 1x6’s at each of the edges to wrap around the stretcher bars both providing the necessary distance from the painted edge (contacting only the unpainted portion of excess canvas) and to lock everything into place.
For starters, we held the painting upright in order to undo the staples and begin to separate the two stretcher halves in the center. The painting was then laid down (face up) being careful to support the freed middle sections of the stretcher, so that we could pull away the loosened canvas and separate the top and bottom sections of the stretcher bars. Very carefully we then began lifting one side of the painting to stand on the meeting ends of the separated stretcher bars. Then the same with the second half, being sure to keep the canvas taught and steady at the freed ends so as to prevent any buckling in the unsupported areas.
At this point we start to brace the stretchers into place. Beginning with the tombstones of ¾ plywood we carefully place the rounded edge on the unpainted portion of the unstretched canvas to give some form to the fold.
The sides of the support apparatus are screwed into the stretcher bars, the excess canvas is pulled snugly around the wooden form, and then stapled into place so the canvas does not shift.
A second, lower brace is added to the plywood at this point to use as leverage so that we could pull the bottom of the half-circle of plywood tighter, allowing the canvas to keep its shape and stay in place while it is transported.
Additional 1x6 braces were then added along the top edge of the folded structure (Which are actually the two sides of the painting) to keep everything securely in check. The painting was then ready for some light wrapping of poly and cardboard so it could be removed from the location and secured into our truck.
In the end, while not necessarily the ideal way to transport a painting, and definitely only a short-term solution from point A to B, a wet fold is not impossible. It just takes some planning, careful attention and clear communication by all hands that are assisting. And obviously, it isn’t something that should be rushed.
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Through the years I have heard a variety of reactions to the description of this process (folding). The most extreme being that this was an abomination and that no one but a conservator should be allowed to stretch a canvas period anyway. This I found interesting considering that a high percentage of the most skilled and experienced arthandlers that I have worked with are artists themselves many of which have stretched more canvas than many conservators will in a lifetime.
Probably more measured and informed comments come from those concerned that in standard folding the canvas compresses the paint surface inward placing more potentially damaging stresses than the other way around (as when being rolled)..
It follows that if paintings are “folded” at all that they should be folded in the opposite direction (paint surface out). An obvious requirement of that solution is that a significant section of the stretcher must be removed, and when it is, what remains has a very limited ability to function as structural support for the rest of the painting.
If executed correctly this could be a superior solution, but if this is done this way then it must also be very rare. I personally have never seen this done. For this practice to become a “standard” method it needs to be proven to be both superior in its effect and practical enough to actually be utilized by artists. At this point certainly neither has been demonstrated, and the inward fold remains the standard.
While I certainly welcome the effort to introduce a significant improvement to the method, my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that this arthandler has been called upon on more than one occasion to fold a painting that was not on a stretcher that was even designed to fold in the first place!
That is to say it is not unheard of to have to fold paintings whose stretchers must be cut in half while the paintings are still attached! Yeah, well though the task is not something that is necessarily an ideal solution to a dicey situation, lacking fundamental forethought it sometimes becomes a necessary one.
This operation - not for the faint of heart – requires a few important precautions and more than a bit of dexterity in its execution. In my experience this is procedure is typically followed by a brief breath of relief, and then in this business - it is on to the next bizarre situation.
Many thanks to Vince and to WelPak for the really interesting pictures and comments. He was kind enough to send this in on short notice to follow up on an excellent conversation that took place at the reception immediately prior to the PACIN roundtable held in Philadelphia at AAMs Annual meeting.
For those of you whose experience an expertise can contribute to refining this discussion please send me your comments (and pictures - we love the pictures) to: