Irreplaceable works of art can suffer damages after years of exposure to unfavorable elements; water, heat, light, smoke… they can crack and show wear and tear from previous restorations of dubious quality. They can be damaged by human error in accidents, as in the case of Casino mogul Steve Wynn, who famously ripped a 3-inch hole through his $139 million Picasso painting while gesticulating at a cocktail party.
This raises the questions – how do you fix a 3-inch hole and how exactly is art conserved and restored? First it is crucial to clarify the difference between the two-art conservation is not identical to art restoration.
Conservation is the profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education. These activities are carried out by museums to conserve art work for future generations.
Restoration is the work of repairing damage to artworks, bringing them back to their original condition. Unlike art conservation, this can include the addition of elements which were not actually pieces of the original, but which are known to look just like them. Restoration is controversial, since it often involves some irreversible change to the original material of the artwork with the goal of making it look good. The attitude of restorers in recent years is to make all the restoration they undertake reversible.
Restoration is slow and tedious work. In the event of a hole, the torn ends of the canvas can normally be lined up – restorers view the ripped area under a microscope and match the fibers on either side of the tear.
The rip itself can be repaired in numerous ways. The restorer can line up the torn ends and attach them to a new piece of canvas lined to the back of the original canvas. Or the restorer can attach the torn ends together by re-weaving the individual fibers back into place.
Flecks of paint that are stuck to the fibers must be glued in place or removed and preserved and then replaced with precision once the canvas has been repaired.
There are many facets to restoration, closing a tear is only one aspect. A restorer must also examine the work of art for planar distortions such as stretched fabric and image distortion. Applied humidity can make a fiber expand in diameter and shrink in length, thereby tightening up distended parts of the weave.
Finally, restorers clean the art work and touch up spots of missing paint with fresh applications matching the colors in the specific area.
Art Restoration Definitions
Abrasions: The scratching or rubbing of a paint film thereby affecting its colors. This is usually retouchable.
Craquelure: In oil painting, cracks can appear shortly after a painting is completed. This is usually most noticeable in dark painted over light areas. Craquelure does not threaten the painting even though it might appear severe. It is a result of the difference between two (or more) layers of paint with dissimilar drying characteristics. It can be retouched.
Flaking: The loss of paint flakes in several areas. This is usually indicative of poor adhesion between the paint film and gesso ground or between two paint layers. Usually a total loss if not lined to reattach paint.
In-Painting: Painting large areas that have been damaged or discolored.
Lining: The process whereby a newly stretched canvas is attached to the back of a painting by wax or glue infusion.
Linoxyn: Old oxidized linseed oil discoloring a painting. This is very difficult to remove even with a specific solvent.
Linseed Oil: Sometimes used as an "enhancer" for gaining a "wet look". It is definitely not recommended as it darkens and becomes one with the original vehicle of paint. It is also very difficult to remove.
Medium: The liquid part of any fluid medium; oil, turpentine, water, egg albumin (tempera).
Mold (Fungus): Grows on either side of oil painting, pastel or watercolor pictures and is very destructive. It can be removed and the art treated with anti-fungal vapor.
Re-Lining: A term often mistakenly used to denote "lining" but actually means to remove a lining canvas previously attached to a painting and replace it with a new one. Old, early lining canvasses were often glued to the reverse of paintings needing additional support for a variety of reasons.
Repainting / Retouching: Restoring damaged or blank sections of the canvas to its original value.
Shellac: Never use on oil paintings. It ages quickly to a dark, impervious film. It is difficult to remove and replace.
Varnish (Gloss): A coating applied to oil and acrylic paintings for two purposes: to protect the paint film from dust, fingerprints, smoke and other oils in the atmosphere, and, to assist in regaining or nearly regaining the "wet" appearance the artist achieved originally.
Varnish (Matte): The same primary function of protection, but lacking the luster or gloss of an "oil" canvas. Rarely recommended.
Varnish Removal (cleaning): The removal of the aged and/or discolored varnish of whatever kind from a painting. A variety of solvents and techniques are employed in this procedure.
Wax Infusion: Heat treatment to force the melted wax through two canvasses onto the back of the paint film. This reattaches flaking or threatening cleavage.