Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Frame and Beyond

I have a box of old photographs that I bought for a dollar.  They attracted me because most of them were images of Chicago, my hometown.  One of them shows the football stadium, Soldier Field, under construction.  It’s a lovely image, and  has historical interest.  Unfortunately it is glued to school-grade construction paper with an Elmer’s type glue.  To remove the photo from this unsightly and potentially damaging background is a tedious procedure, and a difficult one.  If only its original owner  had had the benefit of a frameshop staffed with knowledgeable people like Brian Goff !
Brian is a framer extraordinaire at Creative Framing in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since my work and his often intersect when I am working on a restoration project, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to gain his perspective on the care and display of art and objects. 
As with everything, frames are widely available on the internet.  So, why go to a bricks-and-mortar frameshop ?  Brian asserts, “for artwork you really care about, go to someone who designs frames.  A frame is a bridge between the art and the home. Custom framing is expensive, but the value is in getting interesting results, something unique.”  He points out that an experienced framer can help put an eclectic art collection together.  For example,  an abstract painting could “work” in a traditionally furnished home, even if other art on the wall is traditional.  Frames can actually help one work of art relate to another.  Brian’s own preference is for clean, simple lines and single mats that play on the subtlety of the object or artwork he is framing, but there are times when a client prefers a more complex treatment using multiple mats and on those occasions, he takes that approach. 
According to Brian, the three most important considerations when choosing a frame are these:

1.Know your budget and let the framer know, so that s/he can steer you to feasible choices at the outset.
2. Frame “to the piece” rather than “to the room.”  A mat does not necessarily have to match the drapes.
3. Think about scale.  You can make a small painting eye-catching by using a large or colored frame.

 We talked about the importance of using archival materials in framing.  Interestingly, customers are much more educated now about acid free adhesives and mounting materials than they were even ten years ago.  As a restorer, I see first-hand the damage done by scotch tape and Elmer’s glue. Although I can  cover up the yellowing caused by these adhesives I cannot undo it.  Exposure to these materials will make paper supports brittle and prone to tearing or crumbling.
Brian points out that owners of art and photos do not always anticipate the value of what they have.  Family photos (and photos of Soldier Field)  are a case in point.  In the future they may gain historical or aesthetic value.  
I would also add that an experienced framer can alert you to any conditions in your artwork that need to be addressed.  If you have lived with a painting on a daily basis, you might not realize that it has darkened over the years, but somebody experienced in framing artwork will be able to level with you, letting you know that the painting for which you are prepared to spend a substantial sum is not looking its best.
Not surprisingly, since Creative Framing develops long-standing relationships with customers, the shop has had unique and important projects.  Recently, Brian framed an admission ticket to Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.  It goes without saying that he used archival photo mounts.  The shop also framed copies of the Declaration of Independence just in time for display at Monticello’s naturalization ceremony.  Brian found the project interesting because he worked with a designer based in northern Virginia who created computer images of the room where the documents were to be displayed.  These images helped when it came to choosing the type of frame and the thickness of the mat.
Having the opportunity to handle a piece of history is one of the parts of his job that Brian enjoys most.  Speaking with him made me realize how important it is to work with a frameshop where each piece is valued. We are custodians as well as owners and collectors.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Reversability Rocks

Reversibility Rocks.  I thought that title would show everyone what a cool, "today" person I am.  Any day now I'll start including Steely Dan clips on this website to really bring it up-to-date.  (I've heard that there has been some pretty good music since Steely Dan, but I wouldn't know).

Seriously though, when it comes to restoring paintings, reversibility is important, and it does rock.  Reversibility means that whatever a restorer does can be undone.  Here's why that is a necessary ingredient in responsible restoration,

Right now I am restoring a lovely eighteenth century portrait.  Although the paint is stable around the face and clothing, the background has shown a good deal of flaking. The canvas should really be relined, backed onto a new piece of linen with an adhesive (wax resin being my usual method).  Through gentle pressure, the flaked paint can be flattened and re-adhered to the canvas.

Alas, relining is impossible for this painting. At some point, probably in the last thirty years, the canvas was backed onto a piece of masonite with an adhesive that  cannot be removed with either heat or solvents .  I am following Plan B instead, working on the painting from the front. I am achieving results, but unfortunately, the masonite panel's horizontal patterning is evident on the painting itself.  The texture is distracting.  Hopefully, when I clean the painting, this pattern will be minimized, but I won't be able to eliminate it entirely.Had the adhesive been a reversible one, I could have removed it from this board and relined it on something suitable. 

I remember watching an episode of the old Superman TV show.  In order to undo various and sundry evil deeds, Superman lifted the Earth and spun it backwards.  It was awesome !  (I did start to wonder why he didn't just do that every week to fight crime.  So much more efficient to undo a bank robbery than to fight all the bad guys one by one).  I guess that's what a restorer needs to do.  He or she needs to be able to undo what's been done, to unwind time, if you will.  Even if we don't see the benefit of reversibility in our lifetime, another  restorer, at some point in the future, will really appreciate it. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

All Is Not Lost

Central Virginia is a lovely place.  Although it isn't as warm as I expected, it still beats Chicago.  (When I first moved here and spotted somebody with a University of Virginia Ski Team tee-shirt, I thought it was a joke.  But there actually is a ski team...and ski slopes).

Because Charlottesville and surrounding counties have so much to offer, people are moving here all the time, and of course moves often result in breakage of  one's belongings.  I am called quite often by new residents to the area.  The calls come immediately after  they have unpacked.  One client discovered  a rocking chair poking through a painting. In the case of this sculpture, it arrived in pieces, the casualty of an inadequately reinforced cardboard box. Who among us has not experienced  that sinking feeling upon hearing a rattling sound issuing from a box labeled "fragile" ?  
This figure, reminiscent of a Giacometti sculpture, is approximately three feet tall.  It is cast plaster, covered with textured paint.

This photo is a little confusing.  The red ribbon is part of the band clamp that's holding fragments in place.  
The first order of business was to find all the broken pieces hidden in the bubble wrap and try to reattach what we could.  We were able to salvage perhaps half of them and fabricated the rest in epoxy putty.

Once the arm and neck were restored, we replicated the texture and the layered paint.

Now the figure is back on display in the owner's home after languishing for years in storage.  
The moral: don't give up on your damaged artwork.  At least get an estimate for its restoration.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Thinking of Frames

 It is a beautiful spring day here in central Virginia.   Oddly, I find myself thinking of the perennial holiday special, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer-- the one with claymation figures that resemble squishy ping-pong balls.  In particular I am thinking of the  Island of Misfit Toys, where the odd and unwanted reside.  Perhaps there is a similar island for all the ornate gilt picture frames that everyone seems to be discarding right and left.

The plight of these frames has come to my attention in recent weeks.  It happened that three paintings I have been restoring,  all dating from earlier centuries, were housed in elaborate gold-leafed frames.  All three owners want to discard these frames in favor of something with cleaner lines.  Wood seems to be the preference over gilt.  Will these frames end up on their own Island of Misfit Decor ?    

I find it interesting that many of us are comfortable with  an eclectic grouping of paintings from several periods and in several styles, but prefer our frames to be contemporary or at least unobtrusive. For many, an ornate frame seems dated, not in keeping with a home's decor.  Apparently, the frame is judged in the manner of furniture while the painting is its own self-contained world.  A nineteenth century portrait can "work" with IKEA furniture, but its original frame (if full of furbelows) cannot. 

Now and then, a client wishes to repair a gilt frame.   I  take casts from existing  areas to recreate the missing ones or I carve these pieces out of epoxy.  Although I do not do gold leaf, I have been able to blend colors by  using high-quality metallic paints which I then glaze with earth-toned oil paints. 

I wonder what the future holds for all these unwanted frames.  My guess is that a lot of frames will be showing up in antique and consignment shops, and on EBay.  Hopefully they will find will find new homes, and new lives as mirrors. 

Thursday, March 10, 2011

You Never Know What You'll Find

I wish I could remember where I bought this painting.  Something tells me that it was from a studio sale when an artist was moving out of McGuffey Art Center, an artist's co-op in Charlottesville.  On the other hand, I may have bought it at a yard sale.  The only thing I do remember is the price:  two dollars. I was attracted by the painting's well-worn condition as  well as its naive charm.
There are nail holes which suggests that the painting (done on board) was never framed, just attached to a wall.  I actually like this aspect of it, the way the painting is as much an object as an image.

For at least a decade this painting has been displayed on a table in the entry hall of our house, just casually leaning against a wall.   A few weeks ago, I decided to take a closer look at it.  I think Antique Road Show may have been on TV and I got inspired.  The first thing I did was to research the name of the ship, Nancy Weems.  Here's a closeup of the name.
 In this age of easy internet research, I googled Nancy Weems and found out that the ship was originally named the Corcoran and was built in Manitowoc, Wisconsin in 1919. It was renamed the Nancy Weems in 1923.  It was a cargo ship and had a crew of 41 people.  Another interesting fact was that it's home port was Baltimore.  On the back of the painting is a label from the art supply store where the board was purchased:  the  Hirshberg company of Baltimore.  So from these facts I think it's fair to say that the artist was painting from observation or from the memory of having seen this particular ship.The work is not signed or dated, but I was able to find out that the Nancy Weems was scrapped in 1955.  The typeface of the Hirshberg label seems to fit with a 1920s or 1930s date, but that's just a guess. 

Now that I've learned a bit about the painting, it has emerged from obscurity, at least in my mind.  I wonder if the artist set up an easel in the inner harbor area of Baltimore which is now such a tourist hot spot.  

There isn't very much I intend to do with the painting in terms of restoration.  I will probably varnish it with a matte finish and make sure the label on the back is secure. And that will be pretty much it, because I like the evidence of age.  Sometimes the most fitting restoration strategy is the minimal one.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Lost Art of Varnishing

Painting before cleaning.
Painting after cleaning.
I spent a lot of time in art classes during my younger days, and most of these were during the late seventies and early eighties.   Most of my professors, and hence most of my classes, had a focus on abstract art.  We would discuss the visual language of painting when we weren't busy wondering whether painting was dead altogether.  One thing that never came up in any class was the importance of varnishing the paintings we were creating.  This seems a bit odd to me now, considering many of us thought we were the last generation of painters.  You'd think we'd have made an effort to save these last artifacts.  (In case you were wondering, the expectation was that painting would be supplanted by site specific sculpture, photography and mixed media inquiries into the inadequacies of painting.  I would imagine that now there are people that imagine digital art will finally vanquish painting).

As a result, there are now several generations of artists who have never varnished a single one of their paintings.  This omission could have dire consequences for their work.  I'd like to direct your attention to the before and after images at the top of this post.  This painting had been hung for decades in a room with a fireplace and has suffered substantial darkening as a result.  Fortunately, the darkening occurred on the top layer--the varnish layer.  It was a matter, then, of removing the varnish without disturbing the paint underneath and then revarnishing the work.  In other respects the painting was stable; there was no peeling away of the paint layer.  Had there been no varnish, there would have been very little that I could have done to clean the painting.  

Varnishing is generally done six months after the completion of a work.  If you are not certain whether a work is varnished try looking at it in a raking lightYou ought to see a uniform layer of gloss.   Even a matte varnish will have a certain uniformity of surface.  If  a painting displays some areas that are flat and some glossy, that is a clue that the painting may lack varnish.  The shiny and matte areas would be the consequence of different amount of oil in the painting medium.

One artist that I know had an epiphany about the importance of varnish, but she could not bear to sit down and actually treat all of her paintings, so she came to me.  I went through fifty or so of her paintings, of various sizes and various dates, and varnished them all.  Being a conscientious person, she was also contacting buyers of her work and offering to varnish the paintings that she had sold to them.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Color in Three Dimensions

Applying paint to sculpture is something of a puzzle.  Although three-dimensional, it can still look flat and static if you just slap a coat of paint on.  When I painted Jan Karon's Nativity figures I opted for an illusionistic approach to color. In other words, I didn't just rely on the light and shadows that would appear naturally;   I enhanced them  in my color choices. I approached the figures as I would if I were painting on canvas, using highlights and midtones as well as dark areas.  

Perhaps you have picked up a Nativity grouping that needs improvement or have other sculptures you'd like to paint.  Here are a list of helpful hints.  At least I hope they're helpful.

My first suggestion is to get yourself a bunch of plaster sheep and practice, practice, practice.  It's very relaxing.    I can't decide if this flock, stored away in Ms. Karon's attic, is amusing or menacing.
Check out those very dramatic shadows !

Continuing with other, more practical suggestions:

2.  Read about color.  Anything by the Bauhaus author Johannes Itten will provide a clear explanation of  the dimensions of color:  value, saturation (or intensity), temperature.

3. Experiment with layering color.  To do this  I recommend oil paint, but acrylic will also work.  The idea is to put a base color down and after it dries, brush or rub a semi-transparent color over it.

The rust colored clothing worn by the kneeling Wise Man was painted in layers. I applied a golden yellow to the base and then added various glazes of brown and crimson.  One advantage of this approach is that you can achieve a luminosity that is not possible in a one-layer approach.

4.  See what colors you can add to white and gray.  For the clouds below the angels I experimented with a range of warm and cool colors.  The shaded areas are blue-violet/gray and the lighter areas are warm pink.   The wing has touches of green along with orange and pink areas.  I was able to make them work together by keeping them tinted (mixed with some white).
5. Save crummy old brushes and used toothbrushes.  They are invaluable for glazes when you want to add texture.  The beards of the Wise Men above were done with my very worst brushes.

6.  Let accidents happen.  Paint is a very forgiving medium.  Even if you decide to cover up a "mistake," you may find that letting some of it peak through an added layer of paint will make the texture richer.

7.  Paper towels are often as effective as brushes for texture and to rub on glazes,  Bounty is my favorite.

Thanks to all the posters over at the Mitford website for your nice comments.  I'm glad you enjoyed seeing Father Tim's figures.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I Always Wanted to be in Fiction

Art restoration is rewarding and interesting.  But is it the stuff 
of novels ?  I wouldn’t have thought so until I was asked by author Jan Karon to restore a large group of plaster Nativity figures.  Ms. Karon's engaging Mitford Series  transports the reader to the special world of Mitford, North Carolina.  We get to know  Father Tim, an Episcopal priest, and various townspeople, and we forget that Mitford  isn't a real place.  The series is read throughout the world.

Several years ago Ms. Karon moved to Virginia from Blowing Rock, North Carolina-- a novel-worthy name if there ever was one.    One of the items that accompanied her was a large box containing more than twenty plaster Nativity figures.  I first laid eyes on them when my husband, who was doing decorative painting at her home, brought them to our studio for me to restore.
I think Ms. Karon’s description of the figures is most apt: "unbelievably ugly."  The paint was crudely applied and the color choices were, let us say, ill-advised. 

Despite their obvious shortcomings,  Ms. Karon  “saw the bones” beneath the surface and bought the figures from an antique shop near her former home.  My job was to repaint them, replace various missing sheeps’ ears and an angel wing.    

Normally, restoration work is primarily meant to restore a work to a previous moment in time…most typically the moment of completion by the artist.  In this case, I would say that my job involved reimagination as well as restoration.  Colors were chosen, when possible, to conform to the symbolism commonly used, (Mary’s robe is blue, for example), but in other cases the colors were based on taste and an eye for contrast between the figures. 

While  work on the figures was in process,  I learned that their restoration was going to be a central theme of Ms. Karon's  Christmas book, Shepherd’s Abiding.  In the story,  Father Tim buys a group of derelict Nativity figures  restores them  in secret.  At the end of the book he gives then to his wife as a Christmas gift .  In order to describe the process in a credible way,  Ms. Karon visited my studio and looked at the tools I used.  She did a bit of sculpting also and soon realized that hiding the smell of epoxy from his wife would provide something of a challenge for Father Tim .

It was a rewarding project in many ways.  Besides seeing myself transformed into a fictional character,  I also enjoyed the freedom to explore color on three-dimensional surfaces.  As a result, I have modified  my ideas about color and sculpture, most of which were formed during the welded steel sculpture era of the 1970s.  In my next blog entry I'll go deeper into this aspect of the work.

I was, naturally, quite excited when Shepherd's Abiding came out. Occasionally I would see somebody leafing through the book at our local Barnes & Noble.  How tempting it was to approach them and say, "Go ahead and buy it already.  I hear that the acknowledgement page is a real tour de force.

Monday, January 17, 2011

When Memory Doesn't Serve

The next time you misplace your car keys try not to beat yourself up about it.  Just be glad you aren’t part of the Albemarle Historical Society.  In anticipation of Charlottesville’s 250th birthday, members are trying to locate a time capsule that was buried fifty years ago.  They just can’t seem to find it.  Steven Meeks, President of the Society, managed to track down three of the people who witnessed the burial of the time capsule.  Unfortunately,  they can’t remember where the ceremony took place.  (Daily Progress, page 1, Jan. 16, 2011). This is understandable, since they were children at the time. Hopefully the capsule will be rediscovered without excavating all of downtown. A likely scenario is that the search will be dropped since nobody can remember exactly what was placed in the capsule.  It may not be worth the trouble.

It just goes to show that history can go astray even when one has organized a ceremony to preserve it.  Time capsules and parades do not necessarily translate into hard data.  This newspaper article served as a reminder to me that documentation and a clear filing system are part of the restorer's job.

This lesson is especially pertinent as I launch on restoration of a painting that has been in our family for sixty years or so. .  We don't know anything about it other than the fact that my grandfather bought it from the junk shop near his office.  The artist was Ebinger, which is actually quite a prominent name in Chicago, although I have discovered nothing about Ebinger the artist.
The subject matter, a Chinese woman dressed in traditional costume, would seem to date from the twenties, when Asian themes were popular. It currently hangs in our hallway, but for decades it  held a prominent place in my grandparents' living room.  Over the years it hovered behind us in family photo after family photo. As you can see from the family photos, the  hair styles evolved.  We see a bouffant here, a shag there.  My brother and I change quite a lot. 
c. 1964

The painting, though, has changed very little...or so it seems. 

Upon closer inspection however, we can see drying cracks  and missing paint, along with general instability to the surface. 

Surely those problems weren't present in 1964.  But it's hard to know for sure if they were there or not. Ironically the photographs that  might have served as a document have faded. Like the painting, they are showing their age and are unusable to determine the painting's condition from so many years ago. From that standpoint, they are as helpful as a lost time capsule. Of course that was hardly the intent of our family photos.  They did a great job capturing the fashions of the day as well as the various ways one can express long-suffering tolerance while posing.

Today  as I begin to reline and clean this painting you can be sure I will take many digital photos.  I'll label them and I'll hope that Windows remains a software platform for years to come. I'd better make some archival prints just to be on the safe side.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In Search of the Ideal

      A book entitled Conservation Treatment Methodology does not signal that one is in for a “fun read.”  Yet, this well-respected work by Barbara Appelbaum is enjoyable and approachable.  To give one example, when  the author discusses the ethics of conservation and the way we value objects  she relates the process of repairing her family’s Thanksgiving motif napkins. (We don’t, unfortunately, get a photo of these napkins, but we can easily imagine what they’re like).  She sets up a Values History table for it (p. 229)  With regard to aesthetic value, the napkins “evidently [possess] some—perhaps only to the owners.” By contrast, the sentimental value is “major”. This Value Table ultimately helps the family decide whether it would be ethical to sacrifice one of the napkins so that its turkey motif may be cannibalized and sewn into the tears of the remaining napkins.  I won’t say too much about how the case was resolved, but I can tell you that it ends satisfactorily for all parties...including the about-to-be-sacrificed  turkey (napkin). 
                Another part of the Ms. Appelbaum’s book which has stayed with me, is her chapter,  (Chapter 6),  on the “ideal state” of an art object.  At the moment I am thinking about the ideal state of an easel painting. The simple definition is that a painting's ideal state would be achieved when it leaves the restorer’s studio looking like it did when it left the artist’s studio at completion. There are barriers to this ideal state though, the most obvious being the craquelure (tiny network of cracks) that develop over time and that are usually enjoyed by the owner for they testify to the age of the work.  The other issue, one that I encounter from time to time, is the preference of the owner for varnish that has yellowed or darkened over time.  Paintings are valued when they show their age, which once again proves that art does not necessarily mimic life.   Below is an example of a painting with a darkened varnish.                 

As the photo shows, the painting required repairs to the peeled areas toward the bottom.  The question was whether the inpainting (painting of the missing areas)should match the darkened, yellowed version of the color or should the entire painting be cleaned first.  In this case, the client was interested in having the work cleaned.  The result of the cleaning (along with the inpainting) is shown below.

The difference in color is definitely dramatic.  The colors are cooler and the modeling more articulated.  There may be those that miss the softness of the “before,”  but we can certainly see the artist’s handling of form and greater nuances of color.   Having said that, I can appreciate  Ms. Appelbaum’s reminders that  a painting’s owners may have very strong feelings and associations that  signs of age—including darkened varnish—be left as they are. Her book makes clear that besides correcting problems, a restorer must consider a work’s meaning to the owner.