• Sara Drew is a professional art restorer at Studio Art Center which will guide us through the restoration of a 125 year old oil painting and its original frame.
  • The painting is a portrait of Edmund Holland by Willard Leroy Metcalf from 1895.
  • She will do a five-layer cleaning, repair tears, touch up and varnish the room to bring it back to life.
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The following is a transcript of the video.

Sara Drew: My name is Sara Drew and I work at the Center Art Studio in New York. I am restoring a portrait of Edmund Holland painted in 1895.

This painting is an oil on canvas, and it is in a painted and gilded wooden frame. The paint and the frame are extremely dirty. The paint has a very yellow varnish on its surface, and the frame has a lot of cracks and chips and loose areas that we are going to fix.

So the first thing to do is unpack it when it arrives and do an initial assessment, take note of any condition issues, and then start the deconstruction process. We are going to work on the painting and the frame separately. The paint is held in the frame with nails, so I used pliers to bend the nails, and it’s pretty easy. There were only a few. I will be working on the restoration of the painting. My colleague Caryn will be working on the restoration of the frame. So we bring the frame into our wooden room so Caryn can start working on it.

I start by removing the painting from the stretcher. So, to do this, I remove the tacks along the sides of the stretcher that firmly hold the canvas to the stretcher. I use pliers to pull these tacks out, which loosens the paint and allows it to become a free piece of canvas again. When the board comes off the stretcher, it’s not uncommon for a board not to lay flat as it has been kept folded for decades. So I cut a piece of silicone release paper and used a small iron to iron the edges of the canvas so that it lay flat. I do a first vacuum to remove all the bulky, loose, obvious dust that has accumulated on the back of the canvas and the front of the canvas.

After vacuuming, I use a vulcanized rubber sponge to remove more surface dust and dirt that is a bit more embedded in the surface of the canvas. This is a specially designed sponge that is very porous and removes dirt from surfaces that might be slightly more encrusted in the surfaces. We apply light pressure with the sponge and tend to follow straight lines as opposed to circular or rubbing patterns.

We perform surfactant cleaning to remove grease, dirt and oily substances from the paint surface. At this point, I’m still not doing anything to affect the underlying varnish or paint or anything like that. We usually use cotton swabs soaked in a solution of surfactant, soap and water. Wet the swab, then wipe the swab in generally circular motions on small areas of the cloth at a time. And it’s a very controlled way to remove sticky and dirty substances that build up on a paint surface over time. The soap solution also removed paint from a previous restorer.

There are a number of tears in the canvas that were fixed by someone else, and they weren’t mended very well. So I deleted all that. Underneath, the previous restorer had put a layer of paper on the surface of the painting, which is an odd thing to do. So I used a scalpel to scrape that, but between the heat gun and the scalpel, we can scrape the paper, and we’re going to fix those areas by patching them on the back and using putty to just plug the crack and make Make sure we do not cover the original paint.

After my surfactant cleanup is done, I’m ready to blacklight the paint and do a few solvent tests to see what will cut through the varnish and arrive at the original paint coat. I am using an ultraviolet black light to assess the surface. And that light allows me to see things happening under the surface of the varnish that might not be apparent to the naked eye. I assemble various solvents which I think will be candidates for cleaning. And I do very small cleaning tests in discrete areas of the canvas to test and develop a cleaning plan for the entire surface of the canvas. And I check my work with a black light to make sure what I’m doing is working. If I put the black light on my cleaning test, I want to see that this cleaning test window reflects in purple. That means I cut through that varnish, got to the original paint, and it informs and makes me feel comfortable moving forward to work in larger areas. But like with surfactant cleaning, I use big cotton swabs to work my way all over the paint surface, and it’s so satisfying to see all the old yellow polish coming off.

I saved the face for last in this case, mainly because it’s the most dramatic part of the cleansing process, so it’s a good motivation to keep going. And we want to go to the face, so that’s the funniest part to clean up. It also became evident once I removed all the varnish that this painting, which had been treated by this other conservator, had been cleaned before. However, it was cleaned a bit too aggressively. So there were areas where the original paint had become thin. So, now I realize that I may have a lot more retouching in my future than I might have anticipated.

Once the painting is clean, we remove the old patches and the old strip-line canvas on the back of the painting. Lansing, who owns the studio, does this part. Lansing removes old patches and old tapes. He does this by using a heat gun to heat the patches, which loosens the older parts and allows Lansing to take a metal tool to peel the patch off. And we end up with the original canvas. We are going to strip the edges of the canvas. This is how we can tighten the paint firmly on the stretcher. We cut strips of linen and adhere to the adhesive of the preservative on the strips, which is activated by heat. So we use an iron to attach these bands to the back of the original canvas. We will also do the same technique for the patches that are on the back, and these patches will repair the tears that are on the surface of the canvas. We glue the frayed edges of the tape liner so that they also lie flat against the original canvas. Lansing will retake the painting on its original structure. He marks the middle of the four sides of the painting and the four sides of the stretcher, then he lays the loose canvas on the stretcher, aligns the marks, and then begins the stretching process. It will use a nailing hammer and the original nails that I removed earlier that we kept to reattach the canvas to the stretcher.

My colleague Tyler will now apply a coat of insulating varnish to the surface of the paint to protect all of the original paint and create a barrier between the original paint and the paint and materials that I am going to apply. We use a reversible, non-yellowing conservation varnish, which is easily removed. We apply it over the entire surface to be painted and let it dry. At this point, we place the keys on the back of the stretcher and tap the keys to make the board surface completely stretched out on the stretcher.

After the canvas is stretched, we use a water based putty to fill any cracks in the canvas surface and fill in any areas along the edges or wherever it might be necessary to even the surface. I select the colors I think I need for the touch-up. We use Gamblin conservation paints. These are paints specially designed for conservation work and they are soluble in solvents other than the solvents that will affect the oil painting. So, again, it is still very easy to remove for whatever reason. I mix the colors to try to match the original color as best as possible. I’ll put some paint on the surface; if that looks correct, I will continue. If I need to change it, I will.

One of the problems with this paint was that it had already been over-cleaned by another conservator. To fix all of this I’m going to remove the paint from the previous restorer and repaint only the areas of loss, where it was, with our own preservative paint, pointing very carefully in very, very, very small areas to make the painting complete again. I am very careful to only put this preservative paint in the areas of waste. I never want to cover up an original painting or do anything to obstruct the original materials that the artist put in it. I repaint the entire canvas, and we redo a last coat of varnish. This last layer is the moment of truth. It brings out all the work, and once the last coat of varnish is on and dry, the paint restoration is complete.

Now there is all the restoration of the frame. [laughs] Caryn vacuums the entire surface, then sponge the frame surface to remove any loose dust. Now we clean the frame. We use the same surfactant soap that we use on the surface to be painted. Two of the four mitered corners of the frame have very large gaps. So we will first use an epoxy putty to fill in these areas and then go in and fill with a water based putty. We fill the big ones. It’s always a matter of judgment, but we let the little ones retain an element of age. The detail of the ornamentation on the two corners of the frame is missing. We have to make a mold of the ornament that is there. Then we use a plaster to cast a replacement. Caryn glues them to the frame, does a little more shaping, and then we’re ready to touch up the frame.

After the frame is touched up, we apply shellac to protect our work and make sure everything is sealed. Now the painting and restorations of the frame are complete. We put the painting in the frame, we hang it on the wall and admire our work. [laughs]

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