RIPS, TEARS AND HOLES can happen in a myriad of ways: Ouch! How did that happen? Conservators have their own history of how slices and bumps have found their way for treatment and care. For instance, a fellow I knew in England would collect antiques and his constant companion would tag along. One day this enthusiastic dog jumped into the back of the van and through a very large painting! People have walked through painted screens. Animals chew holes and gnaw panels. Attic roofs have collapsed to let debris, rain and snow fall onto stored paintings. Another time, a painting repeatedly fell from the wall and was spiked by a spindled- back chair. After the third round of repairs, a mandatory visit ensured the artwork was hung safely. Accidents happen.
A badly damaged painting before
Another excerpt of conservation history is how damaged paintings have been fixed in the past. Home remedies and happen-chance materials have found their way into repair kits. Poly-filla has been commonly used to fill holes and cracks. A repair with a Canadian flair employed shiny duck tape to secure numerous long tears and adhered the un-stretched canvas painting to a piece of hardboard. Another painting had old holes filled with straw and a slathering of melded oil and resin for the adhesive. Several times I have found aged postcards with scribbling of a French bonjour, and one repaired tear had glued admission tickets from an amusement park.
Each painting is unique. A conservators approach to repairing damage includes understanding a particular artworks construction and the materials used by the artist. There are varying ways to treat injured areas. If a tear or hole is small enough, localized treatment is often the answer. A damaged canvas painting has broken canvas threads, and often, distortion and irregularities surround the tear or hole. Sometimes a bulge will develop or the canvas support will stretch out of shape. The paint and ground layers may fracture, partially detach, or flake off.
and after conservation treatment by conservator Cheryl Harrison
Prior to treatment, a painting is tested for reactions and sensitivities. Controlled moisture or solvent-moisture treatments may encourage distorted areas towards a more uniform surface. Any flaking paint requires reattachment employing an adhesive using a syringe or small brush. Options for adhesives range from a traditional surgeons glue to contemporary synthetics and resins. Using magnification and diminutive tools, the canvas threads along a tear are carefully rewoven. Additional threads can be interwoven to fill in the areas of loss, or inserts may be made for holes. Patches are not recommended, as they create structural stress and eventually imprint leaving distractive outlines. Missing areas of paint and ground are minutely filled with museum quality filler and minimally in-painted to lessen the distraction of the loss. A conservator utilizes professional in-painting methods and guidelines, and this expertise includes knowledge of Old Masters and painting techniques. All materials used for treatment are selected for overall compatibility, slow deterioration characteristics, and for ease of removal (reversibility) without endangering or bonding to the original artwork.
Conservation is an engaging combination of science, art and a participation in the guardianship of artwork and history. For more information visit the FACTS (Fine Art Care and Treatment Standards) website at www.artfacts.org.
Last issue: Filling in the gaps.
Next issue: Backing removal.