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Let framers frame and restorers restore!

“Is my painting worth restoring?”  Is a very common question in the conservator’s practice. Almost all paintings can be restored; it is just a question of money.  Should they be restored? If so, can it be done at a reasonable price?

If a painting is in such poor condition that it is impossible to hang it on the wall and enjoy it, you should consider taking it in to a professional for a free consultation. If every time you look at the art and a piece of it falls off, you should take it in. If you think that you have a night landscape, most likely is a bright sunny day, but the surface dirt and varnish are so dark and yellow that they turned day into night. A simple cleaning can return your daylight.

Some art pieces are done by amateurs, some by close relatives taking Sunday art class, some are done by great artists or even old masters.  For many, sentimental value is equally important to market price.  A well-executed restoration enhances the value in either case. Botched restoration cuts directly into the market value, because many times it causes irreversible damage.

Yes, restoration treatment can be expensive, but it really isn’t in most cases.  And just like you would not want to have your kidney stones removed by a chiropractor because he is cheaper than the real doctor, you don’t want your artwork to be restored by a framer, just because he is cheap and says he can do it.

As far as pricing, check the competition. Or visit the American Institute for Conservation website, it is a great resource for finding professionals. And let your framer do what he is trained for – making frames.

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Weird Animals in the Western Art

I was always intrigued by depictions of animals in some old western paintings. During the countless hours of studying art and art history, the professors never mentioned a possibility that an old master could have had a bad day, his artisanship suffering, perhaps after a long night in a local pub? The idea that some of the established painters just couldn’t pull it off and paint animals realistically would have been considered a blasphemy, since we all bowed down in front of their unquestioned talent. And yet, it is surprising how many old paintings depict a reasonably naturalistic landscape with very naturalistic people but when it comes to animals – and I am talking cows, horses and dogs here, the common domesticated animals – the painter suddenly let his imagination roam freely. Take for example the Birth of Christ by Hans Leonard Schaufelein.

The Birth of Christ by Hans Leonhard Schaufelein

Painted in early 16th century, the funny looking cows look at us with human-like eyes really upset to    be  dragged into his scene. Although Schaufelein was not an innovative painter, he could paint his figures well. Why he wouldn’t venture into a stable or just look out of his window to sketch a cow, I will never know.

Horses are generously depicted throughout the history of western art, although nobody was quite sure how to correctly paint a galloping horse. There are many examples of a horse painted in an impossible pose, either having both legs on one side lifted (in which case the horse would keel over) or galloping like this one,

Nubian Horseman at the Gallop by Alfred de Dreux

painted by Alfred de Dreux in a mid 19th century painting called Nubian Horseman at the Gallop. The horse cannot gallop with all hooves extended as was proven by an early photography done by a hot blooded crazy Englishman Eadweard Muybridge, once for all in 1877.

But even more famous painters had their share of bad animal days. My favorite French painter of frivolous lifestyle in 18th century Paris. He depicted the life of rich aristocracy with such playfulness and bright colors, that these paintings by themselves could have served as a reason to start the French Revolution. And yet, when it came to the animals, his cat

in the painting Girl Playing with Dog and Cat, looks like a plastic teddy bear from China. Perhaps the sound of guillotine unsettled him right during his finishing touches.

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To Patch Or Not To Patch

OR: What happens if a painting has a tear?

A patch is generally a square or a rectangle of new linen adhered to the original canvas support to hold the torn edges together. Sometimes, just threads of fiber are used instead of a full pieced of fabric.

Old wax patches

Patching a torn painting can be a tricky business. We recognize two types of simple tears: a puncture, a nice, circular break in the canvas caused by a relatively blunt object pushing onto the canvas; and a tear, usually L shaped or I shaped caused by an object in fast motion impacting the canvas.

The success of the patch depends on many factors: size of the tear, type of the canvas support, type of adhesive selected, the thickness of the patching material, the age of the tear, luck and sometimes prayers to the Goddess of Patching. In the studio, we usually do not recommend patching tears bigger than 2-3 inches in any direction. For bigger tears, the canvas support is compromised enough that the patches mostly fail.

The process is very straightforward: The torn pieces are trimmed from back and front to eliminate any stray fibers that can cause overlap or become loose and fuzzy. If not careful, these annoying tiny pieces of fabric can impact the quality of in-fill and make in-panting almost impossible.

A suitable patching material is selected. This depends on the type of canvas the painting is painted on. Thin portrait linen could be patched with a few extra fibers but thick burlap needs a solid piece of new linen to hold the edges together.

In past, most patches were adhered with hide glue. The glue oxidizes and eventually becomes brittle and separated. Many old patches can be removed easily with tweezers; the glue has turn to a sand-like consistency. Then there is Stephen’s favorite patch – a patch without a patch actually, where he is able to patch a painting with adhesive only. I am yet to replicate his method!

The best patching results are achieved with wax as an adhesive. It is soft, playable and sticky, it can also be removed easily. On a thicker canvas we sometimes use BEVA film, and sometimes even the ancient hide glue. Because, with patching, one never knows if it will be successful. The biggest drawback of patching is that in many cases, even the most carefully done patch shows on the surface of the painting as an embossed pillow. Some creative conservators try to overcome this issue by shaping the patch to follow the shapes in the painting. Some restorers never patch a painting but line it instead.

Front of the painting shows the old patches

Over the years we have seen paintings with beautifully improvised patches. A duct tape patch, a clear tape patch, a glued newspaper patch, a chewing gum patch and even a band-aid patch. In many cases these improvised devices actually saved the painting from further deterioration.

In the end, after applying hundreds of patches, I remind equally clueless as to what the outcome will be. Only the Goddess of Patching knows for sure.

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Dutch Girl – conclusion

I am still working on the 17th century Dutch painting of a girl. Few days ago, I examined the panel painting under the ultraviolet (UV) light and I saw that the left side of the background fluoresced, which usually means previous restoration. It looked like somebody repainted the background. But the science of UV examination is imperfect, some dark pigments especially, do appear to fluoresce even though the light pigments of the same age do not. It is therefore quite challenging to know with certainty the amount of previous restoration solely based on observation under the UV light. Stephen always says, the best method to judge the condition of a painting is to take it outside and look at it under full sun. Now, you also have to know what to look for, but he swears that a human eye still beats the modern technology.

 In this case, what gave the painting away was the unicolored background. 17th century paintings were as realistic as photographs and the painters paid great attention to all aspects of the composition detail.  So if all was kosher with mu Dutch girl, she would have a background that would be a part of her daily life, that would make sense for the girl. She is dressed for the outside, there should be a landscape in her background. Or her dog. Anything but the black smudge.

 As I clean off the background, I find and eye, then a nose. I am convinced it was a mad dog at first – for some reason the old masters had either trouble with painting realistic animals, or painted them from the (not so good) memory. If you look at any Bosch painting with animals in it, you will get the picture. (I should think this fact also deserves a separate blog post .)

There are two sheep in the background in the end. One and a half, I should say, since somebody, most likely that crafty restorer who made the beautiful wooden cradle to prevent the painting from warping and splitting saw off the left edge of the painting, since the second sheep is missing a head. Did he cut off 5 inches? 10? We will never know. We will never know why he did it. Was the edge damaged beyond reasonable repair? Was it as simple as fitting the painting in a nicer frame that just happened to be 5 inches narrower? I wish I could know,  I wish it was possible to find the old wooden piece, somewhere, somehow and glue it back together to turn the poor two legged decapitated beast into a lovely sheep it used to be.

The owner decided to keep the headless sheep in the painting. I touched up the scratches, worm holes and missing paint chips. So there you go, Mr. Hendrick Van Der Fliet, I am not sure what would you say if you saw your painting now, I am just hoping you are not turning in your grave too much.

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Dutch girl, interlude

The girl sits on my easel. She doesn’t look very bright, but then, when I was nine and was forced to sit still for a long time, I didn’t look any smarter then her. I am trying to read her face, since there is nothing in the background that would give me a clue about who she was. What was her life like? Based on statistics, in a way, she was lucky. She must have been the daughter of a rich merchant or a successful craftsman – having a portrait painted was an expensive matter. The 17th century Dutch were much more progressive and egalitarian towards women then their French or German neighbors, and she would be allowed to go on a date without chaperone and pick her own husband, a nice Protestant boy as marriages across religions were not tolerated. If she survived into the adulthood. Her life expectancy was less than 50 and most likely she never knew her grandchildren.

I find it fascinating that she is still here. Born around 1640 in Delft, Holland, her name is forgotten, her life unknown, her bones turned to dust long time ago, but she is still here, looking at me with her big eyes. I am so fixated on her face that I almost expect her to speak to me.

“Who are you?” I ask her, as I take a small cotton swab and dip it in acetone in order to remove the old varnish and bad previous in-painting. A girl of well-off parents, having her portrait painted by a well-known local artist. Hendrik Cornelisz van der Vliet was born in Delft around 1611. He was a portrait painter who later turned to architectural paintings. His pictures of church interiors are full of light and life. His church is more like a covered promenade where people stroll leisurely, work and go about their business, than a sanitized place of worship. He was a contemporary of Rembrandt van Rijn and I amuse myself with a thought of the two of them meeting and exchanging observations about light and perspective. Who knows? This is as close as I can come to touching a grand master.

A strong urge to own this girl overcomes me and I have a fleeting thought to sell our Volkswagen to buy her. I even go as far as picturing her over the mantelpiece in our living room, fantasizing that my husband would be equally enchanted and wouldn’t notice the missing family car. With a big sigh I let the dream die. I have a similar dream about almost every other painting that comes through my door. They are often so beautiful, and they all have stories to tell, interesting owners to gossip about. I put on my face mask and refocus on her lacy apron, cleaning off a small rectangle. It is a mistake of many of my profession, past and present, to start cleaning a portrait painting directly on a face only to discover that the wrong solvent was used and the original has been irreversibly damaged. In my case, the original oil paint is so old and solid, it is insoluble by acetone, so it is a pretty safe cleaning. Suddenly, my cotton turns black, a sign that I removed not just varnish but paint as well. It can only mean one thing and it is usually bad news for the owner.

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Dutch girl prelude

One would think that cleaning old paintings and repairing torn canvases will over time become a boring routine. The truth is that every painting (well, almost every) poses a different challenge and no matter how many times you may think you have seen the same problem, there is always the possibility that a surprise is lurking around the corner. Sometimes it is a pleasant surprise, more likely though, it is not.

There is a large panel painting of a young girl I recently worked on. She must be about 8-9 years old, sitting, dressed in a heavy woollen garment, holding a flowery wreath that she must have made before she was forced to sit motionless for hours, so that the painter, a major artist of the town of Delft, could capture her resemblance. She was painted in the middle of the 17th century, the time of the Dutch Golden Era, in 1648 to be exact, by a well known painter named Hendrik van der Vliet.  She is beautifully painted with glazes, her apron is snow white and you could replicate the embroidery easily today, it is painted in such realistic detail.

“Who is he?” Asks Stephen, my business partner and a friend I share the studio with.
“It’s a she,” I tell him. You would be surprised how difficult it is to tell males and females apart in some paintings. I used to make fun of Stephen about his presumed lack of ability in this area, until I spent half a day referring to an important client’s ancestral portrait of three boys as “those lovely girls”, forgetting that in the past very young boys wore  dresses. And also – you won’t find this in any serious official art history literature – our ancestors of the Baroque era really liked manly women with small breasts but large hands and effeminate men with long hair but hairless chests.

She is painted on an oak panel, four horizontal planks glued together. Some skilled restorer in the past attached a cradle to the back to keep the wood from warping. The cradle worked well and the painting stayed flat for almost 400 years. I don’t have to look at the painting under ultraviolet light to detect the previous restoration work. A lot of what was done to her is clearly visible with the naked eye. The girl’s white apron is specked with yellow lines and dots. Her face is blotchy, a sure sign of old, discolored oil paint. I take her to the dark examination room anyway and shine the ultraviolet (UV) light on her. Sure enough, I can see plenty of old restoration. The magic of UV light lies in the different levels of fluorescence that pigments and varnishes have depending on their age. To put it simply, the newer paint shows as dark purple, while the original paint stays gray.

The girl is looking at me, her faint smile is gentle. I spent the day in research and documenting her condition. When my work for the day is over, I only reluctantly leave her in the darkened studio. If I wasn’t too embarassed, I would call into the darkness, “Good night little girl, I’ll see you tomorrow!”

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