Francis Kelly, the 20th century artist and conservator, noted that “every work of art starts out on the progressive path to destruction from the moment it is created…. When the object passes from the artist’s hands he can but pray it will be well looked after.”
And therein lies the challenge.
Time and neglect can wreak havoc on works of art, be they priceless masterpieces or your child’s irreplaceable drawing of the family frolicking at the beach.
Damage comes in many forms. Surface grime, caused by dirt, dust and smoke, can cause the art to darken, sometimes significantly, such that colors become muddy and the background all but disappears. Light can yellow or discolor varnish. Paint can crack or tear, leaving the painting “broken” from all its missing pieces. Mold and mildew can cause brown spots on paper and mats. And tears and holes can result from improper handling or storage.
Whether the damage is structural or aesthetic, a talented conservator can repair and restore the art.
The process is often long and tedious, and represents an art form unto itself. Conservators are trained art historians, chemists and materials scientists, as well as skilled artists. They also follow a strict code of ethics.
Just as a doctor is guided by the maxim to “First, do no harm,” a conservator must maintain the integrity of the original artwork. Everything they do should be reversible, so that their treatments do not alter the art.
The most common restoration projects involve removing dirt and blemishes from the painting’s surface, with the possible addition of infilling missing paint. If a layer of varnish covers the art, the conservator will carefully test the surface to confirm that the cleaning solvents are compatible with the underlying paint material.
The varnish and whatever has adhered to it is then carefully removed with archival tools to reveal the true colors used by the artist. Whites are transformed from dull to vivid. Blues and greens and reds accentuate the depth of color the artist intended.
Once all the layers of varnish have been removed the conservator will wash the painting with a “retarding” solvent to eliminate any residue from the cleaning process. Throughout, great care is taken to not dislodge or abrade any of the pigment on the surface.
At this stage, once the original artwork has been revealed, a synthetic, non-yellowing, removable varnish is applied. This effectively isolates the original painting from any paint that will be used to fill in and reconstruct the art.
Colors, texture and surface sheen must be matched, using care not to overlap the original paint. Following the in-painting a final coat of reversible ultraviolet protective varnish is added and the restoration is complete.
The cost of restoration is highly variable due to the fact that no two paintings are alike, and the effects of damage are inconsistent. Factors such as the sensitivity of the original paint and how difficult it is to remove grime and varnish, the size of tears and holes and how much paint has been lost, and the amount of cracking or other types of degradation impact the fee. Because it is a time-consuming process performed by highly skilled artisans, the cost can range from several hundred to thousands of dollars.
With artwork, value takes many forms. There is the monetary value associated with the price paid for the art, and what others are willing to pay today. There is also the emotional and sentimental value of family heirlooms or works of art that have personal meaning.
In each case, a damaged piece of art will be enhanced and made more valuable by restoration. Once the restoration has been completed the painting will be stabilized and the colors will brighten and come alive, returning the art to its original beauty so that it can be enjoyed for years to come.