Art Restoration: The process and challenges of restoring damaged paintings.

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What is art restoration?

Though only a tiny fraction of museum collections have been damaged or destroyed by fire, floods, theft, or other accidents, it is nevertheless a pressing problem. Museums are legally bound to keep their collections in good condition, and when a fire or a burglary destroys works, they are faced with the difficult decision of whether and to what extent to replace or restore them, perhaps at great expense.

Art restoration is a highly skilled field, requiring not only years of training, but a good eye, a good memory, and a strong stomach. The task is complicated by the fact that even a minor accident can destroy the art’s historical, scientific, or artistic value.

The restoration of damaged works of art is a task that museums not only take on themselves but are constantly trying to get better at. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an active program devoted to cleaning, repairing, and conserving its collection. The National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution’s museums have similar programs.

Most museum conservators work to preserve works of art, but once in a while, they get a call to restore something, too.

What are the challenges of restoring a painting?

Today, when art restoration is more commonly referred to by its technical term, conservation, it is most commonly concerned with paintings. But paintings are only the best known of a number of media that have been damaged by both time and environmental factors.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where conservation work is concentrated, ranges from small objects to monumental sculptures. While the conservation staff has trained to work on every medium, the artists who create them have also brought a level of expertise to the process.

The Met’s conservation scientists consider art conservation to be essentially three processes: 

  1. treatment
  2. preventive conservation 
  3. research and education. 

Treatment is the actual process, with materials and techniques, necessary to restore an object. Preventive conservation involves eliminating or reducing threats to objects before they occur. Educational and research are designed to support treatment and preventive conservation.

The Met’s conservation department’s laboratories are not open to the public, and conservators are proud to keep it that way. They like to show off their work, but not their methods.

Conservation scientists and conservators work closely with Met’s curators, especially in conservation research, preventive conservation, and public education.

What are the different types of art restoration?

For 500 years, art was thought of as something that could not be restored, and this sense of permanence was reinforced by museums, which treat their collections as sacred. (Museums used to be called “temples,” and they are still temples.)

Over the last 30 years, however, it has become clear that we can restore almost everything.

For example, we can restore paintings by wiping off dirt, wax, and other accumulations and replacing missing parts.

We can fix the sculpture by mounting it on fiberglass and, if necessary, filling in missing bits.

We can regain jewelry by polishing it, replacing missing stones, and replacing parts that have fallen off.

We can restore ceramics by cleaning them, filling cracks, and gluing broken pieces.

We can restore glass by cleaning it, replacing missing pieces, and repairing cracks.

We can restore paper by cleaning it, replacing missing parts, and repairing tears.

We can restore wood by sanding it down, filling cracks and holes, and varnishing it.

We can restore textiles by cleaning them and, if necessary, replacing missing parts.

We can restore leather by cleaning it, replacing missing pieces, and repairing tears.

We can restore metal by cleaning it, replacing missing pieces, and repairing dents.

We can restore paper by cleaning it

Challenges of restoring damaged paintings

Paintings are fragile. They fade and discolor, and if they are old, they sometimes develop cracks. Depending on how they have been damaged, restoration can be a simple or a complex process. The simplest restoration is retouching. Sometimes the damage is so small that paint can be brushed on to cover it. Some damage, however, is too deep to be retouched. When a painting has been folded repeatedly or exposed to extremes of temperature, the canvas loses its flexibility.

Repairing an old oil-on-canvas painting can be tricky. Large tears, punctured holes, and flaking paint are obvious problems that you will need to deal with. Smaller damages, however, can often just be retouched if the canvas is still flexible. Many ancient paintings have been folded repeatedly over the years or taken out of their frames for cleaning or other repairs.

Restoring a painting requires a thorough examination of the original surface. Old, faded paintings may need to be cleaned, and cracks in the paint may have to be repaired. In paintings that have been rolled or folded, folds can become permanent or even tear through the canvas. Sometimes painting over a badly damaged surface simply doesn’t work, and if a repair is made, you will always be able to tell where it took place.

What exactly does an art restorer do?

Art restoration is becoming one of the fastest-growing fields in the art world.

This field has been expanding for two reasons. First, many famous works of art are damaged by time; the ravages of weather, neglect, and accidents are so great that few museums can afford to have them restored. 

Second, many art museums now feel obliged to save more artwork than they can display, and so hire restorers to catalog, clean, and conserve the pieces that the institution already owns.

Of all the skills required for art restoration, perhaps the most vital is the ability to discriminate between damage and deterioration. The difference between dust and grime and decay or damage can be subtle, and a professional restorer is trained to look for it.

Professional restorers also have to deal with things that most people would never even dream of touching. The restorer who was hired for the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for example, had to reattach every little piece of tesserae, the tiny fragments of colored stone that made up the mosaic.

And restorers need to be able to read the problem, not the labels. For instance, a restorer who was hired to clean and conserve a painting by Rembrandt was not simply removing dirt. The work she was doing was cleaning layers of paint that had been applied over centuries, layers that had gradually yellowed and darkened.

The restorer had to decide what paint remained; she had to decide whether it was the original paint or overpainting or overpainting that the restorer should remove. And she had to decide what color was underneath.

Restoration is as subjective as art itself, and just as difficult. 

What is the process of restoring a painting?

Art restoration is a fascinating job but not many people know what it is like. It is a bit like being a detective, except that instead of solving crimes, you are trying to figure out which paint layers were put on by an artist and which were added later by someone else.

The paintings usually under restoration are paintings on canvas. Paintings on wood or parchment are harder to restore than paintings on glass or metallic surfaces.

The job of restoration begins when the painting is discovered and it is identified. Sometimes a painting will be identified from a photograph; sometimes it will be identified by its style.

The next step is to try to figure out when the painting was made. Often it has a date. If it is old, the date may be the best guess, or it may be based on research. A date of 1600, for example, is pretty much as good as the date of 1600. A date of 1600, 1605, or 1600, 1606, is about the same, and a date of 1600-1605 is just as good.

Knowing when the painting was made isn’t enough. You may have a good guess, but how do you know it is right?

The first step is to look for the name of someone associated with the creation of the painting. Sometimes paintings are signed, and the signature tells you something. A signed portrait by Rembrandt, for example, means that the portrait is by Rembrandt. Sometimes a signature tells you nothing. Most signed paintings weren’t signed when they were made; they were added later, as was common practice in the seventeenth century.

Next, look for clues in the painting itself. Paintings often show things in the background that are the same as other things in the background of other paintings. 

There are two basic approaches: one invites the artist’s eye to take over, the other tries to restore the original.

We usually think of artists as having the genius to create something new. They don’t. They usually try to restore what already existed, and they do it more or less successfully. And the way artists restore is not by thinking about the painting itself but how to restore it. 

They go to the museum; they look at the paintings; they look at all the paintings that are similar to theirs; they look at what those paintings look like today. Then they bring back all the things that they like — the paint, the colors, the composition, the framing, whatever — and they try to use it to make something new. They have some idea of how to restore a painting, and they usually get it right.

The difference between restoration and creation is that creation is risky. No matter how good you are, you can’t foresee what something will look like. You can predict what something will look like from how it was before, but even that is not enough. Often the original artist did not know exactly what he was creating. He was experimenting. When he finished, he would have had no idea what it looked like. Thus the creation, by its very nature, is riskier than restoration.

All of which makes it all the more surprising that artists work so hard at it. It is safer to try again to restore a painting than to create something new.

Art restoration is more interesting, though than art creation. 

The artist’s eye is very powerful. But it can’t always tell you what is wrong. It can tell you what is wrong with a painting you have never seen before, but it can’t tell you what is wrong with a painting you have seen before. And it can’t tell you what is wrong in anything.

The only way to know for sure what is wrong is to look at the thing itself

How does an expert restore paintings?

The job of a restorer is to put things back the way they were. If, for example, you decided to throw a party, and a lot of your friends showed up, you would probably clean up some tables and chairs, clear some space, and put them away. You would not invent new tables and chairs, hang a fresh coat of paint on the walls, or bring in unique decorations. Instead, you would restore the old stuff to the way it was before you had people over.

A restorer is a person who does the same thing with art.

But restoration doesn’t work if you just put things back the way they were. If a painting restorationist saw a painting with a hole in it, it would make no sense to put another painting on top, even if it was exactly the same size and shape. Instead, the restorer would figure out which color was in the original painting and mix and paint a new panel to match.

Restoration also doesn’t work if you restore a work without exploring alternatives. Suppose a restorer had never seen another copy of a painting. He would not know that a painter had once painted a second version of the same scene and that both of them looked fine. In fact, the second painting would look better.

So restoration requires good judgment about what to change and imagination about what could be changed.

The restorer also needs a good understanding of the original. He needs to be able to tell from the existing painting what the original painting was like. He needs to know when it was made, and what was popular at that time. And he needs to understand the techniques of the original painter.

But whatever the restorer knows about the original, he almost never gets to see the original. 

How do you know if your art or painting needs to be restored?

When you look at a painting, you’re seeing the surface. The painting is made up from multiple layers of paint. Each layer has a different purpose. Some are there to protect the paint underneath, some to make the paint lie flat, some to make the paint reflect light, some to make the paint look shiny, some to make the paint look dull, some to make the paint look gritty, and so on.

So when you look at the surface of a painting, what you’re looking at is a combination of different purposes.

Now let’s say that some of the paint layers are old, and some of them are new. These new layers have fresh purposes. But the old layers are still there. They have served their purpose, and now it’s time to get rid of them. Art restoration is the process of doing just that.

The job of art restorers is to figure out what those old layers were for, and then to get rid of them. There are different techniques for removing different kinds of paint. Some are better for removing old layers of oil paint than for new layers of acrylic paint, and vice-versa. Some are better for getting rid of black than for getting rid of the color.

But how do you know whether a painting is old? Sometimes you can tell. Sometimes the paint is flaking; sometimes you can see the layers of paint in the cracks between the glazes on the canvas. But sometimes you can’t.

Sometimes you can tell just by looking at it. Sometimes you can tell just by touching it. But not always. And sometimes you can’t.

The restoration supplies you will need

You are going to restore a 16th-century painting. You have two painting boards, each with a scale of 1/8 inch, a brush, a cleaning cloth, two cloths of turpentine, a tray, two bottles of linseed oil, and a bottle of varnish.

Is all of this stuff really necessary?

Well, no. If you don’t have the painting boards, you can measure the painting with a piece of string. The paint on the string won’t match the painting, but it will do in a pinch. If you don’t have the brush, you can scrape the paint off with a razor blade.

But you aren’t going to get a very good job that way. So let’s assume you have everything.

The painting is 5.5 inches by 3.5 inches. It is covered with a layer of paint about 1/16 inch thick. The surface has few breaks — the brush marks are shallow and straight. The paint is brown, light brown, tan, and ivory.

Here is your shopping list:

  • 1. turpentine, 1 ounce
  • 2. linseed oil, 1 ounce
  • 3. varnish, 1 ounce
  • 4. brush, 12 inches
  • 5. painting board, 1/8 inch
  • 6. measuring tape, 4 inches
  • 7. razor blade
  • 8. string
  • 9. flat brush
  • 10. small brush

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