What can cleaning a painting uncover?
For art lovers and enthusiasts everywhere, perhaps the most enjoyable part of art restoration is seeing the transformation brought about by cleaning artworks. It’s endlessly satisfying to watch as a painting loses the dirt and dust it has been smothered in for years and emerge fresh-faced and with a new lease of life.
It’s especially interesting when we find something unexpected hidden underneath a thick layer of dirt.
Because we keep in regular contact with our clients throughout the restoration process, we always return to them if we find anything interesting, unusual, or troubling.
Cleaning and restoring artworks is a continually surprising and fascinating foray into the life of a painting.
Take a look below at some of the things we have uncovered during the cleaning stage of restoration…
Craquelure develops across the surface of a painting as the paint layers age and shrink. The network of fine cracks covering a painting can be unsightly and really ruin the appearance of an artwork, especially when cracks become filled with dirt.
The appearance of craquelure is particularly prevalent with light-coloured paint layers. As such, for portraits with extensive cracking across the sitter’s face, the effect can be deeply unpleasant for the art owner.
The cleaning of a painting can uncover craquelure, and in the most severe cases, the result after cleaning can be hugely different to what was anticipated.
If not already, craquelure can be stabilised to ensure the painting remains structurally sound, and a process of sympathetic pigment matching and retouching can take place. This will provide the most uniform finish possible, and reclaim the original intended appearance of the painting.
It’s not always possible to be aware of the full history of a painting. Even if it has been part of a family for years or it has been purchased with detailed information on its provenance – there may be some details of the painting’s past that are, quite literally, missing.
While cleaning removes what shouldn’t be there, it also shows you what should be there but isn’t.
This is most apparent when facial features are incomplete. The reasons for why there may not be an intact mouth, nose or eye may prove to be a mystery, it’s possible it can be attributed to inappropriate paint or materials, previous well-intentioned tampering, or historical previous repair or damage.
It can be alarming at first to find the details that should so comprehensively bring a painting to life are missing, but (like with craquelure) through similar careful pigment matching and retouching of the affected areas, the missing features can be sympathetically recreated, so anyone looking at the painting for the first time will be unaware of their recent addition.
Newly added details and overpainting
Of course, it’s possible that another well-intentioned enthusiast may also add new details to a painting, and paint over the original features and paint layer as part of their efforts.
Before beginning cleaning, overpainting can be discovered under UV light. It is evident where newer paint has been applied over the original paint. The correct mixture of solvents can successfully remove the overpaint, and allow the conservator to assess the condition of the paint layer underneath.
As you can see in the photographs below, on a recent painting we restored, it transpired that the bottom part of a second nose had been added to the painting at some point. Our conservator carefully removed the overpainting, and gently retouched this area to ensure uniformity with the portrait as a whole.
Similarly to the addition of new details and overpainting, cleaning can often point to areas of a painting where prior retouching has taken place.
This is possibly part of a previous restoration effort, or again from a former owner hoping to perhaps add vibrancy to a painting or cover areas of lost paint.
If the new paint used is inappropriate, this can potentially lead to cracking. Likewise, if an inexperienced amateur completed the retouching, the pertinent areas can be clearly visible, either from a distance or close up to the painting.
If the new paint layer is unstable and was used to cover lost paint, we can remove it and correctly fill the area ready for re-touching. If the paint layer is stable but lacks uniformity, we can ensure that through correct pigment matching and retouching the affected areas are fitting with the style of the painting.
Provenance of the Painting
One of the most enjoyable finds while cleaning is uncovering details of the painting’s provenance.
This could be an artist’s signature, the date of the painting, or possibly the location of the painting. Sometimes these details are hidden underneath the dirt and have not been revealed to the current owner.
This can help to pinpoint accurate details and lead to further research and findings. When we keep in touch with clients we always let them know if we have found such details and our discoveries are always pleasing for the owners to hear.