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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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