A Guide on How to Restore Artwork

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It is said, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It is also said, “one man’s art is another man’s trash.” So how does one decide which art is a treasure and which is trash?

Art restoration is repairing or recovering works of art such as paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts such as furniture. Human beings have maintained their interest in art for as long as they have been around. Why do people do this? People enjoy looking at beautiful things, and art is often attractive and appealing. Art also provides us with a window to other periods, times, or cultures. Art is one way we learn about ourselves.

There are many reasons why art needs to be restored. Things wear out or degrade over time. The paint on paintings can fade, or the wood in furniture will crack. However, not all damage is like that. 

Masterpieces, such as paintings, need special care. You may have seen how oil paintings fade over time, and some paintings are so valuable that they need special care. 

The damage is usually caused by ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light is a spectrum of light with a wavelength shorter than visible light. The ultraviolet light in sunlight is only a small part of this spectrum, but sunlight is very important for art because it regulates the earth’s temperature.

Art restoration is a tricky thing. All art is made to be looked at. And art is never finished. The artist wants to sell his work as quickly as possible, and he may rush the job. On the other hand, an appreciative collector or curator may slow the job down, paying more than the artist hoped.

So, if you want to restore a work of art, you need to be able to tell the artist’s intent from his mistakes. And you need to be able to say, “yes, this is beautiful” and “no, this is ugly.”

You can’t always tell. You don’t know from just looking at a painting whether its colors have been mixed properly. You can’t tell from the size alone whether a picture is a historical or modern work. You can’t tell by just looking at a painting whether it has been cleaned. You can’t tell from looking at an image whether the paint is original or added later.

Art restoration is not a simple process. You often have to analyze paint, clay, and canvas chemically. You often have to hire a conservator and an art historian. You often have to employ an authenticator. You often have to hire an appraiser. You often have to hire an auctioneer. You often have to hire an auctioneer’s assistant. You often have to hire an insurance agent. You often have to hire a lawyer. You often have to hire a tax accountant, a decorator, a decorator’s assistant, and a handyman. 

Things to know before you begin restoration.

When you restore art, the important things to know are:

  1. What caused it to get damaged in the first place.
  2. What its original condition was.
  3. How much damage has been done?
  4. How much further damage can it withstand.
  5. What its restoration budget is.
  6. How are you going to pay for it?

The answers to questions (1) through (4) can be gathered by talking to experts, and (5) through (6) by talking to experts.

The experts will tell you what caused the damage. For example, if the painting is old and faded, it was likely exposed to UV radiation. 

The experts will tell you what the painting’s original condition was. For example, the canvas may have been stretched on wooden panels that were painted and varnished. The experts will tell you how much damage has been done. 

If the painting is badly faded, it may only have a few decades left. If small spots on the canvas have dried, the canvas may have to be replaced; if large areas have dried, the canvas may need to be stretched. 

The experts will tell you how much further damage it can withstand. For example, it may bleach for a while, but it won’t stay bleached forever. 

The experts will tell you what the painting’s restoration budget is. For example, if the artwork is irreplaceable, it may need restoration, costing tens of thousands of dollars. 

The experts will tell you how you are going to pay for it. For example, if you are restoring it as a volunteer, you will need to raise the money. If, on the other hand, you are fixing it.

Getting started restoring your artwork.

You first need to decide whether you want to restore your artwork yourself or have it repaired professionally.

Often you will feel more comfortable with yourself doing the work. This is perfectly fine, and many people prefer to do their work.

However, there are some problems. Your artistic eye may miss some issues. And you may not have the skills of someone who is a specialist.

So, in most cases, you should let a professional restorer restore your artwork.

If you decide to do it yourself, there are several things you will need to know.

First, you will need to select a surface on which to place your artwork. A museum quality framing shop has several types of mats, backing boards, and glazing materials. They have many frames to choose from, and will take care of the painting’s proper placement in the frame.

Second, you will need to select the proper solvents for your application. For example, if you are cleaning oil paintings, you will need solvents that will not damage the painting.

Third, you will need to decide on the proper cleaning methods. For example, for oil paintings you will need an acid cleaning application.

Fourth, you will need to decide on the proper varnishing materials.

Finally, you will need to decide on the proper framing materials.

One thing to remember is that your framing materials should match your artwork. For instance, if you are framing a painting, you should use a frame that is similar to your painting.

The best way to restore artwork is to follow your artist’s directions.

What you should do when restoring your artwork

Artwork is complex, so it seems strange that so few restoration books have explained what should be done in enough detail to be useful. Every work is different. But there are some general principles, and this book will try to cover them.

The first thing to realize is that restoration involves changing something. The terms “restore” and “restore” mean something slightly different. “Restore” is to restore what already exists, while “restore” means to make something new.

In things made from organic materials, such as paintings, “restore” means to make new what has degraded. With paintings, that means cleaning, stabilizing and compensating for losses.

With man-made materials, like silverware, “restore” means to replace what has been lost. With silverware, that means finding a replacement part. But often, where it is possible to do both, “restore” and “restore” mean the same thing.

The second thing to realize is that restoration involves understanding something about the material. So, for example, you can’t restore a stained glass window without knowing why it has stains in the first place.

The third thing to realize is that restoration involves understanding something about aesthetics. So, for example, you can’t restore a stained-glass window without knowing what effect the stains will have on the window’s appearance.

The fourth thing is that restoration involves knowing something about the science of materials. So, for example, you can’t restore a painting without knowing how pigments interact with light.

The fifth thing is that restoration involves both science and technology. So, for example, you can’t restore a stained-glass window if you don’t know how to clean it.

The sixth thing is that restoration is a team sport.

How to remove and replace dust and dirt from your frame

It costs nothing to clean pictures, but people expect too much from cleaning them. Many museums have a standard cleaning procedure for scientific reasons. They won’t clean an image that doesn’t have a label, or if they have to clean it, they won’t do that, either.

The fact is, you can clean a picture. Dust and dirt are inert and won’t hurt the image. Dust and dirt are made out of dead stuff, and dead element doesn’t decay. If the surface has cracks, the cracks won’t get worse.

You can clean the picture without cleaning the frame. The frame may look nice, but the structure isn’t part of the picture. If it’s dirty, you can clean it.

But it would be best if you didn’t clean the pictures very often. Most pictures spend most of their lives in galleries, and they get dirty in galleries. That’s normal. But you shouldn’t clean them frequently.

If you clean your pictures, try either:

  1. Wiping them with a soft brush.
  2. Wiping them with a damp paper towel.
  3. Wiping them with a damp, soft cotton cloth.

Use water, not alcohol, and don’t use paper towels if you can help it. A paper towel is abrasive and will make a scratch in your picture.

Different pictures need different treatment. Rembrandt’s picture must be cleaned by hand, not with a brush, because Rembrandt used oils. Monet’s frame on a picture must be cleaned with a brush because Monet used water colors. 

What kind of frame should I choose?

When buying artwork, many people don’t know that frames can significantly impact the appearance of the painting. The right frame not only protects the artwork but also enhances it.

There are many questions you should consider before you choose a frame. First, what size will the artwork be? If it is to be hung over the fireplace, a large frame will look best. If it is to be hung over the sofa, a more petite frame will be ideal. Think about the proportions of the painting. A broad subject is best framed in a wide frame; a portrait in a structure that is too narrow will “cut” the matter.

Next, where will the artwork be hung? If you are hanging it in a sunny room, consider buying antireflective glass.

There are, of course, some other frames to consider.

Solid metal frames, which look like chunky wood, come in either flat or shadowbox styles. The shadowbox style is thicker and sturdier and is often used to protect artwork from dust. 

If you don’t want your artwork to look “squarish” (that is, not flat), consider the frame with the inside rabbet. Framing artwork in a rabbeted frame makes the art appear more dimensional.

Metal frames with wooden shutters come in a variety of styles. If you like the clean lines of a contemporary look, choose a simple metal frame. If you want a more traditional look, choose an ornate frame.

Masonite, a lightweight flat board, comes in a variety of finishes. Although less expensive than wood, it comes in more colors, including golden oak.

The frame doesn’t have to be made of wood. 

Store the painting properly

The best way to keep a painting is to keep it out of the light. Sunlight can bleach the colors, moisture from the atmosphere can break down the varnish, and even the canvas itself can deteriorate over time.

In the nineteenth century, paintings were kept in the dark rooms. People also tried storing them in caves, which they thought had low humidity and good air circulation. But the best recommendation is probably to keep them out of the light.

So, if art is to be kept, how should it be stored?

Storage boxes should ideally be airtight so that any moisture in the air doesn’t reach the picture. But because air contains 20 percent moisture, any container that isn’t airtight will slowly leak out. So the best recommendation is to use boxes made of archival materials, which stay dry even if they aren’t airtight.

Paintings should always be stored flat, not hung up, so they don’t warp or sag. And they should be stored away from heat, cold, direct light, and other damaging agents.

Paintings can be damaged by people touching them, so gloves should be worn when handling them. If possible, they should not be taken by more than one person at a time for the same reason.

Paintings should not be stored in places with a lot of vibration because vibrations can make them vibrate and break apart. Fluctuations in temperature can damage them, so they should be stored in a dry, stable place.

Paintings should not be hung vertically. If they are hung on a nail, it should be placed in a stud, not driven directly into the wall.

Paintings should be dusted periodically. Squirrels and rodents love to eat pictures.

Paintings should not be hung in direct sunlight. The intense light will bleach the colors.

Learn how to move an art piece

Artwork, like jewelry, is fragile. An accidental bump can destroy it. Painting can peel. Metal can rust. And too often, we have no idea what caused the problem.

The trick to fixing art is not to trick it into thinking that nothing is wrong. Instead, we have to learn how to move art in a way that preserves it.

That’s easy to do if you know what you are doing. Most art museums, for example, have “handling” books that tell you exactly how to handle art. But most people don’t, and this leaves them stuck. They don’t know what to do.

The problem is not a lack of knowledge. People know everything you need to know. The problem is a lack of practice.

So here are some things to keep in mind:

1. Art is not inert. If you don’t like the way something looks, try moving it. Sometimes it turns out to look better in a different position.

2. Position matters. An object should be hung so that its base is level with the top of the frame. (If it is hanging at an odd angle, it is likely to sag, and that could damage the artwork.)

3. Art has weight. If you put something heavy on it, it is likely to sag or to move.

4. Art is not static. If you shove something against the wall, it is likely to fall out.

5. The surface is uneven. If you want to put something on it, it might help cover it with a layer of foam.

6. Hygiene is essential. Don’t just stick your hands in, then rub them all over. Use the unique clothes provided.

Art restoration is not the same as art preservation.

Art restoration is the art of restoring works of art to their original appearance. Art preservation is the art of preventing works of art from ever becoming unoriginal.

Restoration is not preservation. Restoration is fixing, and preservation is preventing.

Restoration is treating something that’s broken. Preservation is preventing something that’s broken from ever being made broken.

People tend to confuse the two, partly because the process of art restoration is messy and full of hazards. Artwork can be damaged by fire, flood, rust, mold, insects, and people. The job of restoration is to rescue it from further damage.

But restoration is not the same as preservation, and preservation is not the same as repair.

Restoration is fixing. Preservation is preventing. Repair is fixing.

When something breaks, repair it. When something is in danger of breaking, don’t make it worse.

Preserving a piece of artwork is like protecting a house. Sometimes you have to do both. Fixing a house is like fixing a car. Sometimes you have to do all three.

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