Restoring Antique Paintings.

Michael Grashe, Bellevue, WA Art Restorator. Article: Restoring Antique Paintings. As a conservator, as well as an art collector, I am often called on to appraise and restore works of art. Some restorations are simply a matter of adding a color wash to a scrape on the canvas, but other jobs can be more extensive.

First I look at the work from the perspective of a dealer, authenticating the artist, age, value and importance. Some works can be extremely valuable without a signature, or without being done by a known artist. Any reputable gallery or dealer will give you an appointment for an appraisal.

Upon examination of the work and authentication of the author as a celebrated artist, with a good auction record and show history, I will accept the undertaking if the damage is no more than 25 per cent of the whole. Works by lesser or unknown artists can have a damage ratio of 40 per cent and no more. The aforementioned ratios are an acceptable amount of restoration, if done adequately. Then, I must objectively, artistically determine if a painting will be helped or hindered by any addition or correction of mine.

A painting is made up of layers of very dissimilar materials which disintegrate or age differently, and at different rates. In order to restore a painting you must understand each layer you are dealing with, the materials that make up the layers, and how to duplicate materials and pigments used in another era. This is done so that when new materials are applied, the aging process will continue at a uniform rate for each layer.

We always find ground, primer or both, on antique paintings, whether executed on a piece of wood, canvas or stretched linen. On top of this surface the paint, or pigment is next applied. Finally, a varnish is used as a protective coating

Over the life of an antique painting, it could be revarnished several times.

Artists in the past each had their own formula for their primer, paint, and varnish (usually linseed oil). Some of those formulas are more stable than others, so although the layers are the same in every painting, some paintings will be more deteriorated than others, given the same age, storage conditions, and all things being equal.

The most disturbing part of a restoration is removing a bit of old varnish to find that the painting was restored seventy five years ago by someone who had no understanding of the underlying cause of the problem, and who simply covered it over.

Probably the most requested procedure is "cleaning" oil on canvas painting. By "cleaning" most people mean removing the old varnish layer. Paintings can actually be cleaned of dirt with a variety of methods which have been around for many years. But, under the dirt, I often find the "Old Master" varnish, By now almost everyone knows that linseed oil, over time, will darken the surface of whatever it is applied to. By the 19th century "Old Master" paintings had darkened so much that it was assumed they were deliberately painted that way. Artists wishing to emulate the "greats" of art covered their works in a brown tinted varnish to copy the effect. Add a hundred years of darkening to the already somber paintings, and by the dawn of the Millennium, cleaning has become the most common procedure asked of the restorer.

Nor were lesser artists of the past any more scrupulous about the colors they used, knowing the brown varnish would cover it all. Some paintings, having been cleaned of the varnish layer, are immediately revarnished with "Old Master brown" at the request of the owners, who were horrified, when confronted with reddish trees or bluish grass.

How can you tell if a painting you own needs to be cleaned?

As a conservator, I prefer to remove the dirt only from an antique painting and leave the original varnish. I favor this procedure if the surface is still intact and not cracked from humidity or a dry environment. My advice is to clean only if the varnish or top layer is badly cracked or flaking. Whether you have your painting cleaned or leave it as original, try and keep your art away from sunny windows and heat sources. That will help keep the varnish stable for as long as you own it. This advice is doubly important for paintings on wood panels. Atmospheric conditions affect the wood much more so than a painting on canvas. Wood swells and shrinks, and with it, the individual layers upon the wood is compelled to follow along. My advice is to keep any painting executed on board hung in the least likely place to experience extreme conditions, and definitely away from sun and forced air heating systems.

Other techniques of restoration we employ might include the addition of lining to reattach the pigment, chemical cleaning (removal of discolored varnish and dirt) or refinishing with non-yellowing varnish. Every project is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

No matter how severe the damage, we professional conservators can properly restore old, badly deteriorated, worn or even ripped canvas. It will be our pleasure to give you a free estimate and consultation on restoration of paintings, icons, porcelain, pottery and ceramic, ivory, terracotta, marble, bronze glass, antique frames and any other objects of fine art.