The Fine Art of Conservation
Meticulous technique lifts dirt, patches holes, reveals original beauty of time-worn paintings
By Michael Donahue
December 28, 2002
When she found an old, dark canvas in a frame at an auction, Anne Conrad felt there was more to the painting than met the eye.
She could make out only part of a face on the right side. The rest of the oil painting was black with dirt and grime. "It looked spooky," Conrad said. "You couldn't tell if it was male or female."
She bought the painting for $200 and took it to an art conservator. "He said, 'I think there's something else under there. I can clean it for you, and we'll see.' "
Conrad was astonished when she saw the restored painting. "I thought he was giving me the wrong painting. Not only what turned out to be a lady was on the left-hand side, but there was a young girl holding a cat. It has all these details, and they have on beautiful gowns. You can see their jewelry. She has on an old matching bracelet and choker."
Dilapidated oil paintings, many from the 19th Century, can be found at auctions, estate sales and antique malls. They range in price from $10 or less to hundreds of dollars depending on subject matter, whether or not the painting is in a frame and the amount of damage, which includes holes, scratches and dirt.
Whether it's a portrait of an austere gentleman with half his face missing or a ripped-up landscape, art conservators can bring paintings back to life. Restoration can run from $100 to several thousand. But the results can be worth much more than the cost.
Randolph Jones Jr. and Kitty Sting are two Memphis conservators who specialize in restoring antique paintings.
Jones, who owns Fine Art Restoration at 2404 Madison, said he's restored oil paintings he "literally could walk through."
Since he began restoring paintings 35 years ago, Jones has seen very few paintings beyond restoration.
"Just yesterday I told a client who is looking for a Madonna and child, 'If you can find it, don't worry about the condition. Get it on approval and bring it to me.' "
Jones examines the painting, and, if he thinks it's possible to restore, he tells the client to go ahead and buy the painting.
Many people prefer an antique painting to a new painting, even if it's in bad shape, Jones said. "They do have a certain look."
The subject matter often is different from that found in a newer painting, he added.
Portraits are particularly popular, Jones said. People buy them "because they don't have any family portraits, but yet their decor requires they have some old portrait. They get the 'instant ancestors' type of thing and hang them on the wall."
Rips are the first things Jones looks for when restoring paintings. He repairs these first because cleaning the painting first would make the rips bigger.
He then strips off the varnish to get back to the original paint. "I've been in the business long enough to forewarn people this is not going to look like it was when it was brought to me. After stripping off orange and yellow varnish and umber filth, there will be bright colors. That's the problem with restoration. You really have to prepare the client 'cause it can be very shocking."
Jones, who studied art conservation at Memphis College of Art, uses acrylic paint, a water-based paint, to touch up oil paintings. "Anything I've added to it (the painting) cosmetically can be easily removed, and the original is right there again."
The varnish he uses can easily be removed with mineral spirits. "I make sure everything I do is reversible."
Sting learned to restore paintings 17 years ago at a National Trust of British Antiquities program at Oxford University in England.
Sting, who owns Kitty Sting Studio and Art Conservation Center at 701 S. White Station Road, uses a microscope to analyze the pigments in the painting so she can match the paint. She mends tears with binding wax, little pieces of canvas and a special conservator's iron, which operates on low heat so she won't blister the painting.
As with Jones, everything Sting does to a painting is reversible. She also makes photographs of the work before, during and after restoration. A written report is given to the owner of the painting after she completes the restoration.
Unless they're professionals, people should never try to restore a valuable painting.
"If you find a painting, don't try to clean it with soap and water," Sting said. "It dries the pigment. It completely cracks the painting. It becomes brittle."
"Things people tried to 'do it themselves' earned a lot of money for me over the years," Jones said.
People were told to rub cold cream, wadded up white bread and Irish potatoes over a painting to clean it. "What you're doing is putting water over it, and that's going down in the cracks of the paint."
Some people use poppy seed oil on a painting because they think the paint dried out. "They rubbed all this old oil on the front of the painting. It went down in the cracks. Oil rots cloth. Oil rots canvas. If you take a rag and put it in motor oil, in 10 or 15 years the rag will be rotted.
"Paintings don't dry out. That's a misnomer. Once a painting dries, it dries. It doesn't get drier. They're seeing filth, expansion-contraction by putting paintings in attics and basements. If you can't hang a painting, put it under the bed. Keep it in constant temperature."
Paintings don't like extreme temperature changes. "They need to be in the same environment a human does."
Also, hanging paintings over a fireplace mantel isn't a good idea, unless blocks of wood are put between the painting and the wall. "So air can circulate behind the painting. A lot of times that wall heats up."
People need to beware of fake antique paintings, Jones said. "As I work with them, something doesn't look right. The filth on the back of the canvas has been sprayed on. Two hundred years of filth has been applied in 20 minutes. And on the inside of the stretchers, they have failed to remove 'Made in Mexico' or 'Made in Italy.' You have to look along the edges of the canvas and see if that's new or old-looking canvas."
Staples instead of nails used to hold the canvas to the stretcher might be an indication of a fake but not always. "Maybe the painting had been restored and sometime someone had restretched it and used staples. You can't gauge it by that."
Art conservation can result in some surprises.
Sting recalled the time she restored a portrait of a hirsute gentleman. "It looked like he had a huge beard covering half his face," she said. "When I uncovered it, it was a just a little chin line beard like (worn during the) turn of the century. Somebody had tried to restore it, and instead of repairing the damaged area, they just slapped a beard on top of it."
Jones restored torn "mother-in-law portraits" that were still reeking of alcohol because someone threw a full glass of scotch through them.
One painting of someone's mother-in-law was riddled with bullet holes. "The mother-in-law was coming to visit for the holidays. The man said, 'I don't care what it costs to fix it, you fix it.' "