For some reason, every Christmas someone’s painting falls off the wall. It happened again this year — a small, plaintive voice at the end of the phone: “I’m sorry to bother you Mr. Genn, but our big one of yours fell down and hit the fire-tongs. Two small slices in the canvas near the bottom. Could you recommend who we might take it to?” “Bring it to me,” I tell her. I’ve always rationalized that the artist (if at all alive at the time) is the conservator of choice. Here’s why: Regular restorers tend to err on the side of minor repair — a careful match in a small area. The artist himself is in a position to be more convincing in the necessary overpainting. Apart from knowing the chemistry of the materials and being familiar with the style, he might even make it a better painting.
Each problem needs to be worked out on its own, of course, depending on the support, media, and damage incurred. When the owners arrived I saw that the 20-year-old acrylic was in good shape except for the slices. We had a nice visit and then I set to work. It’s important to take your time. I believe in relining canvas. The idea is to be as non-invasive as possible. With acrylic medium, full strength, I adhere a patch of canvas to the back over the damaged area. If the corners of the patch are slightly rounded there is less tension on the underlying canvas. Just like Martha Stewart I tamp from the center to get out the air bubbles. In the morning I clean off the front of the wound with ammonia and remove all traces with water. A light sanding gets rid of the hairy parts. Then the cavity is filled with acrylic modeling paste applied with a spatula. Two swipes are necessary as there’s shrinkage. The next day the actual repainting takes place. In this case just two or three passes does the trick. Match and go. It’s an act of re-creation. No fiddling.
After satisfaction and drying I varnish the area to match the original sheen. On the patch itself I make a note of the materials used, date the repair, and sign my name. This adds rather than detracts from the value and gives continuity and interest to the art. I never charge for this service — after all, aren’t they guaranteed for life?
PS: “Once you have really ‘heard’ what the artist has expressed, it is simple — and fascinating — to work back, step by step, through the technique. Thus one may share in the act of creation.” (Edwin Alden Jewell)
Esoterica: I like The Restoration of Paintings by Knut Nicolaus and Christine Westphal. It’s an overview of problems encountered and methods used by the professionals. For info on shipping, insuring, crating, hanging and otherwise avoiding problems look at Caring for Your Art by Jill Snyder.
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Charge for it
by Henry Featherstone, UK
You might be interested to know that you have art collectors on your subscriber list. After your letter came out yesterday I had a call from a man who had one of mine and wanted to get the “free” restoration you were talking about. I told him I charge to repair damage that they do to my work. My time is valuable.
Don’t charge for it
by Joe Blodgett
I was glad to hear you don’t charge for fixing things. I’ve found that when I tell people they can get things like you were talking about done for free they are more inclined to take advantage of the service. This gets them back into my studio and sometimes, not always, they buy another. It’s a valuable bit of good-will that the artist can do. Also, paintings need cleaning and re-varnishing from time to time. This is a good way to keep in touch.
by Pat Weekley
I just read the article about patching paintings that have been damaged. I had just such an occasion. The painting was one of my own and it received a three cornered tear. I use oils. It was several years old and quite dry. I applied the patch to the back of the canvas, I usually stretch my own so I had a piece of the canvas from the same roll. I used denatured alcohol and removed the dried paint. Sanded it when it dried, a couple days later. Applied a little modeling paste to even it out and when that was dry I repainted it. Looks really good, except when you look at it from an angle, and then I can see it. I have had folks look at it and a couple wanted to buy it but I felt it necessary to tell them about the “boo-boo”. They shrank away from it like it was leprous. I had never thought that it may “ADD” to it’s worth! Am I crazy? I had never thought of signing the patch either. Comments?
(RG note) The angle-view problem is generally a matter of matching the varnish. Often a few passes (on oil paintings) with a spray can of retouch varnish will fix it. In some cases it’s necessary to remove all of the varnish from the whole painting and re-varnish. Also, keep in mind, particularly in oil, it’s a good idea to try to match the viscosity and medium used in the original paint. With regard to attempting to sell a new painting that already has a repaired perforation, that’s a little more dicey. In a case like that I would re-canvas (re-line) the entire back of the painting and make the potential customer aware of the situation. They wouldn’t be able to see any problem, and there likely wouldn’t be.
Go back to basics
by Faith Puleston, Germany
I was so glad you wrote something technical. I don’t thing I could have coped with an end of year binge! Being a musician by trade and a novice in visual art, it is taking me time to understand the “organized chaos” of the creative processes involved in “visuals”. Learning to “see” is, I discovered, just as difficult as learning to “hear”. The most useful thing about being a musician is knowing that it’s all right to go back to basics. You need all sorts of guidance in your own individual development. And then you need to discriminate, and like Jack Horner in the nursery rhyme, now and again you need to pull out a plum and give yourself a pat on the back. So that’s what I shall do today. I don’t have a picture to repair, but I have a couple of canvasses that are ready for some urgent recycling with Plaster of Paris bandage, gesso, and a whole lot of acrylic or oil paint. It’s a bit like child-play. But isn’t that what it’s all about?
Repairing a damaged life
by Sigor, Romania
In the search for perfection, the repair of the damaged painting, there is also the implication that the life of art might be repairable. For we need the perfection. Oh to be able to leave the holes as they are and accept them as part of the damaged life.
A magic means to open the heart
I am a painter who discovers himself little by little through his art. It is a research of one’s self. We look in a thousand ways, and our beliefs and our conditions align us continually. “Je suis” precedes our thoughts and our ideas. The task seems rough because of our limited vision. A kind of faith pushes us continually towards the understanding. Perhaps there is nothing to understand (this is the paradox). It’s just a small me cogitating. We do not live, we are lived, and little by little this takes place as the energy that goes and comes in all without our agreement or disagreement. When I paint, I do not look for anything specific, not any plans either of ideas — thus spontaneous movements and forms are born on the canvas. I choose the music mood and the colors only. I sometimes decide I am not able to paint. Art is a magic means to open the heart and sense the spirit. Buddha is also an example for me: “Think of this day here for it is life, yesterday is already a dream and tomorrow is only a vision. But a well lived today does of each yesterday a dream Happiness and of each tomorrow a vision hope.” (Translated)
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida
Now that the kids are grown, I find it more and more difficult to get in the ‘Christmas Spirit.’ Doesn’t help, I guess, that this is also the busiest time of year at the studio. Most of November and December I’m busy painting childhood homes from faded photos, a friend’s favorite dog, three paintings to ‘match’ the one they got last year, something nice to fit in this old frame… the list goes on and on. Not much that I would generally ever choose to paint on my own. Every year I promise that someday soon I will just stop taking commissions altogether. But then, inevitably, late at night I sit staring into a portrait that I’ve been asked to do at the last minute, into the eyes of someone’s beloved baby, and I remember. Oh yeah… Christmas!
(RG note) Portraits are one of the toughest acts to pull off. Before, during and after the act portraits set up waves of anxiety in artists. Unless an artist particularly loves the challenge, needs the money, or is particularly good at it, I recommend doing something else — like following your instincts.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 95 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2001.
That includes Jo Scott-B who sends this quote: “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)