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Conservation Corner

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CURRENT COLUMN

Seeing in Different Ways: A Liz Magor Backpack Project
Seeing in Different Ways:
A Liz Magor Backpack Project

Why Paper Discolours (Part 2)
Why Paper Discolours (Part 2)

Why Paper Discolours (Part 1)
Why Paper Discolours (Part 1)

Mending a Tear in an Aboriginal Drum
Mending a Tear in an Aboriginal Drum

Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 3)
Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 3)


Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 2)


Distortions and Dimensional Changes
in Paper (Part 1)

After treatment
Oscar Cahén: Innovative Conservation
for an Innovative Artist

Structural
Rigid Water Gels: New Treatment Options for Paper Conservators

Structural
Structural Remedies for Canvas Paintings

Digital
Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 4: Digital-based Material

Photos
Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 3: Photo-based Material

Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 2: Paper-based Material

First Steps
Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 1: The First Steps

Natural Dyes
The Use of Natural Dyes in Textile Conservation

Butterfly
A Relocation Project

Challenges of Preserving Contemporary Artwork

Preserve Your Investment through Art Conservation

A Project Completed: Heritage Preserved

Old and New Methods for Cleaning Paintings

I Can See Clearly Now – Or Can I? Part 2

I Can See Clearly Now – Or Can I?

The E.J. Hughes Mural: An Expanded Project

Is She or Is She Not an Emily

Treating Art with Sensitive Media

Malaspina Mural: An Update

For the Artist: Testing Your Materials

Conservator as Art Historian

Alum Sizing and the Art of W.J. Phillips

Treatment of an Elizabeth Keith Wood Block Print

Structural Treatment of an Emily Carr

The Treatment of a Monumental Wall Hanging

Changing Images

Preserving a Rare Record

Gold Leaf: Imitation and Genuine

The Case Against Canvas Backings

Heritage Colours: Research Discovers Original Colours

Lighting Your Art: Balancing Seeing and Protecting

The Double-Sided Emily Carr Painting

Choosing a Period Picture Frame

How to Identify a Picture Frame

Stretching Canvas and Restretching Artwork

Mounting Textiles

Aging Paintings:
Some Causes and Effects

Chine Collé Prints

What's Your Favourite Color?

Backing Removals

Rips, Holes and Tears

Filling in the Gaps

DIY – Preventative Care of Paintings

Frame it Right

Fire, Water and Smoke-Damaged Paintings

Inherent Vice

Saturated Problems:
A Water-Damaged Painting

Moldy Paper

Conserving Time

Conserving Paper: Dos and Don'ts

Repair of Textiles

Conserving Wood

Rescuing Endangered Murals

Repairing Acid-Matte Burn

Art Services & Materials
Exhibition Openings & Events


Conservation Corner Back

Old and New Methods for Cleaning Paintings

by Cheryle Harrison
conserv1@telus.net

Its surface has darkened and the painting’s colours and image have changed. Paintings can be obscured by layers of grime, accretions, old varnishes, and overpaint from previous repairs.

Time Smoking a Painting

Aging affects artwork. Time Smoking a Painting, etching by William Hogarth.

If we reflect on the history acquired from aged treatises and writings, we find that intriguing materials and techniques were used to clean paintings. Older methods included rubbing a painting’s surface with a stone block, mastic tears, potatoes, onions, or bread. Washing the paint surface with urine and ammonia, or scouring it with potash or alum was common. A coating of oil on the front and back of a painting was used to “brighten up” its appearance.

In earlier times, artists or laymen would work on art just as a blacksmith would carry out dentistry, as the commonality of tools outweighed the era’s development of a specific expertise.

Household remedies such as washing a painting with dish detergent, spraying it with window cleaner, or using commercial solvent emulsions, are becoming antics of the past. Aggressive techniques or inappropriate cleaning agents can result in the weakening of a painting’s structure, causing flaking or dissolving paint layers. Stripping varnishes and harsh, exuberant cleanings can leave an artwork’s appearance blanched and its structure leached. In other words, antiquated or unskilled attempts to reveal an image may cause it to disappear from history altogether.

present-day cleaning method

Conservator employing a present-day cleaning method on an early 19th C. Ecuadorian icon

Contemporary advancements in our knowledge of the structural science of paintings and the technological development of tools, materials, and methods for cleaning paintings, extend beyond traditional methods employing solvents, emulsions, and scalpels.

Dr. Richard Wolbers’ significant explorations with aqueous intermixtures, surfactants, chelators, enzymes, and solvent gels for use in varnish removal and cleaning paintings, provide additional options for the conservator. Research continues as advancements always create more questions.

Present day cleaning of paintings combines traditional and modern methods and dry and wet techniques directed for specific cleaning concerns. Cleaning paintings requires more than an assessment of the artwork, the selection of the type of cleaning procedures and the materials involved.

A balanced cleaning methodology also incorporates a conservator’s knowledge, experience, objective logic, and humility combined with a respect for the artwork’s integrity and an understanding of the aesthetic and historical context of the painting. As Sarah Walden says in her book, The Ravished Image, “Conservation has never been purely a matter of solvents, recipes, and equipment.…”

Previously: I can see clearly now – or can I Part 2?
Next issue: A project completed and heritage preserved

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 Sat, Sep 5, 2009