Painting and sculpture restoration projects present challenges of tremendous variety. That being said, there are two principle causes of damage to a work of art: accident and atmosphere. The accidents are obvious. A painting has an unexpected meeting with a rocking chair, thus resulting in a tear. Such mishaps are common. (So don’t feel too bad if it happens; you’re in good company!) Yet, even more common than an accident is the degradation caused by atmosphere. A painting is a record of every change in temperature and humidity, every cigarette ever lit in its vicinity, and every evening spent beside a lit fireplace. Over time, the protective varnish can darken to such a degree that the artist’s original color choices and intent are impossible to see. Fortunately, a cleaning can revive such a painting.
I recently restored a floral still life, an oil painting. The prevailing color resembled coffee with a touch of cream. Although an essential color at one’s local Starbucks, it was not contributing much to this painting. The veil of brown was so heavy that at first I was not even convinced the work was really a painting. I suspected for a moment that it was a print, until I saw the craquelure (age cracks). After cleaning the work and returning it to the client, I received a very appreciative letter. She told me that the painting had been purchased by her grandparents at the beginning of the twentieth century, when they were just married and decorating their new home. Later, the painting came into my client’s possession and it moved with her from house to house, but was never hung because it seemed too dark. The client wrote that now the painting “is proud and so am I!”
Of course it was wonderful to receive such a letter, but part of me was a bit sad to think of the years this painting languished in closets and attics because nobody had discovered its potential. This experience illustrates the owner’s role as custodian of family heirlooms and keeper of history. Naturally, the cost involved in a restoration is something to consider, but it is certainly helpful to get a restorer’s input before deciding what to do. I am always happy to look at artwork, make recommendations and give estimates. I do it free of charge because lack of information should never be the reason we do nothing to preserve a work of art.