Imagine if your painting was missing a key component – perhaps a corner of the canvas was missing or there was a hole in the middle. It would take away from the enjoyment of the piece if a part of the artwork was no longer there.

In such instances, the painting may have suffered from accidental damage or had a long and turbulent history.  

Other more unusual cases highlight how a painting can become incomplete due to the way it has been created. Examples mostly relate to contemporary paintings and the materials they have used; one such recent example is for an artwork with no ground layer. The ground layer holds the paint in place but for this artwork, the paint has been applied directly to the canvas. It caused the paint to become loose and so large areas of the painting were missing. 

So what happens if you have an artwork with a missing piece? Can it be recreated? What would a new piece look like?

Read on below to see how our conservators restore paintings with missing pieces and for any answers you might need!

How can missing pieces be recreated for oil paintings?

For any painting we receive into the studio, we complete a full and thorough assessment. When this happens, we can ascertain exactly which part and how much of a painting is missing and if any further restoration work is needed.

For an oil painting on canvas for example, if a corner is missing, one option is to strip-line the edges of the painting. The corner is an important part of the painting to be missing – it means that the painting cannot be fully re-tensioned and may lead to consequent issues. If there is a hole in the middle of a painting, we can attach a canvas insert from the back of the painting to fill this space. 

Before proceeding with any work, we need to speak in detail with our client about what they are hoping for and what can be achieved. One of the key details we need to know is whether there are any photographs of how the painting looked before the damage. If we know how it used to look, and if part of the missing canvas has some important detail on, we also need to know if our client would like this missing detail to be replicated. Alternatively, if there is no prior photographic evidence, we can make a plan and discuss what the client would like to achieve.

Once there is a new canvas attached, we can apply filler to these areas and retouch accordingly after careful colour matching. A layer of varnish will then act as a protective measure for this new paint layer.

Below is an example of a painting we recently restored that had a missing corner. This was a complex case, as there were holes around the edges of the canvas and the top left section of the painting was missing. Full lining was required to provide much-needed support. You can see read more about this case study here.

Can anything be done for works on paper?

For works on paper with torn pieces or holes, the treatment is carried out in much the same way as for oil paintings. We can recreate missing pieces using liquid paper pulp and can reline if necessary on Japanese tissue. Likewise, we can also retouch this new area according to our client’s wishes. For works on paper, missing pieces can occur for different reasons. Sometimes this can also be due to insect infestation. Silverfish particularly can eat away at delicate works on paper, and require new sections to be recreated. The below photograph shows the damage such insects can cause.

Occasionally clients also like to keep some signs of the artwork’s history. For a recent map restoration, there was a piece missing just above Bolivia. Our client decided that he would like this area to be filled with paper pulp, and to simply retouch to blend in with the surrounding map. He did not wish for any geographic features to be replicated.

What are the issues for contemporary paintings?

When a contemporary painting has issues with the paint layer, it is possibly a problem caused by how the painting has been created. 

For a recent painting we had in the studio, the artwork had no ground layer. This is an uncommon practice and will have been a conscious artistic decision.

The ground layer is applied before the paint layer and therefore holds the paint in place. For this artwork, however, the paint has been applied directly onto the raw canvas. It caused the paint to become loose and so large areas of the painting were missing.

After extensively consolidating the painting, we applied filler to the missing areas of paint and shaped it to recreate the impasto present elsewhere. We spoke at length with our client about what they wanted to achieve from the restoration. They, unfortunately, did not have any photographs of how it looked before the paint sections started to break off.

Our client decided that they were happy for our conservators to recreate the details of the painting, by following the path that the existing colours had taken. As you can see, the shape of the flowers gives an indication of how the painting should look. Our client was delighted with the results of the restoration and how we managed to capture the details of the painting.

We would normally have advised obtaining a new frame to provide more support, however, due to the fragility of the piece and how it was attached to its stretcher bars and the current frame, it would be too risky to change. We did not want to create any more movement than was necessary for the painting or cause additional stress to the artwork.

We informed our client that once the painting was back at home, we advised minimising any movement and displaying the painting in a clear space so there will be no pressures against it.

Although it can seem daunting when you have an artwork that has a missing part, careful repairs and restoration work can ensure it arrives back home in one piece.

If you would like our advice for your painting, please contact us for our no-obligation help.

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