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Art restoration: how to bring a masterpiece back to life

Experts on art conservation reveal the process behind art maintenance, and the tools of the trade.

In 2017, a Twitter video uploaded by English art dealer and broadcaster Philip Mould went viral. The short clip showed a gel-like solvent being enthusiastically applied to a portrait from 1618 and in seconds, the unsightly sepia-tinted varnish melted away like the mould in a Magiclean commercial, revealing the startlingly pearlescent pigments that have been hiding beneath it for the last 400 years. It’s profoundly satisfying to watch, but real art restoration is less like a magic trick and more like a slow, highly exacting excavation that can take weeks or even months to complete.

Paintings that old are understandably fragile and taking any action upon it with the same vigour Mould displayed could permanently remove and damage the original paint. “One has to be observant, meticulous, organised, careful, skilled and be attentive to details,” says Pia Josephine Chang, founder of The Pia Studio. “Conservation is both an art and a science, so education from either or both these disciplines will aid in the profession, but being sensitive to colours, mediums and materials is also a valued skill.” She adds that a balance of micro and macro approaches is required. “Just like an artist, we have to know when to step back.”

(Related: Why the world brings precious tapestries to Belgium for restoration)

Art conservation and restoration covers numerous mediums such as sculptures, books, ceramics, textiles and even architecture, and each has its own set of challenges. “For outdoor sculptural objects, conservators have to endure the elements so a lot of safety and health measures are taken into account,” explains Xu Weilun of YH Conservation. He also reveals that conservators often rely on tools more commonly used in the medical industry. “A dentist’s mirror is meant to check teeth but we found it very useful for checking the insides of a hollow ceramic.”

Part of a conservator’s job is also to manage client expectations. “There are occasions when an artwork is beyond treatment, or the outcome may not be ideal, so we have to prepare them for that and determine the next best course of action,” Xu continues.

Sharon Tang, director of 5Degree East and an expert in restoring oil on canvas paintings, says that certain types of cracking and large tears are the most difficult to fix, as well as paintings that were treated with the wrong materials. This is why anything a conservator does to a piece of art needs to be reversible. Interestingly, it is also more difficult to restore contemporary artwork because of their sometimes unexpected materials and combination of different mediums. Works by the Old Masters are more standard by comparison, she says.

But given how deep a conservator has to dig into an art piece to save it, surely fakes must have revealed themselves in the process? “It’s a very good question, but also an extremely sensitive one,” says Tang. “My personal view is that a conservator is just like a painting doctor. We will diagnose and treat a ‘patient’, but we will not judge them.”

(Related: Classic cars: Restoring a rare Rolls-Royce)

Art Restoration The Peak Singapore

Art care

If you’re going to put millions of dollars on your wall, make sure they hold their value.

01. Hang the painting in a stable environment

Choose a spot indoors with consistent temperature and moderate humidity. Keep it away from water sources such as toilets and swimming pools, direct sunlight, or directly under an air-conditioner. Those who love to bask in natural light while enjoying their art can consider a translucent protective film for their windows and skylights.

02. Send it to a professional

Cars and timepieces need periodic servicing and the same holds true for paintings. While environmental factors and accidents do contribute to the damage, many conservators agree that negligence is often the biggest culprit.

03. Hire an art hanger

Don’t run the risk of having your million-dollar painting crash into the ground because of insufficient support. An art hanger will know the best hardware and materials to hang a piece with, based on its size and weight, as well as the right protective backing for the painting.

04. Choose the right glass

Regular, non-glare glass isn’t going to cut it as it provides next to no protection against UV rays. Lightweight plexiglass offers about 60 percent protection, but museum glass should be the top choice as it protects against 99 percent of UV rays.

05. Get a smoke detector

It’s not enough to get a heat detector, as that will only warn of fires in the home and will not detect cooled smoke that might waft in from a distant blaze. Ensure there is a smoke detector within 30m of your artwork.

(Related: Luxury homes: An art gallery in the house)

Tools of the trade

There are many specially formulated solvents, adhesives and solutions available to conservators, but the actual tools can be sourced from anywhere.

Tweezers: For picking up tiny pieces of flaked paint and reapplying them.

Fine cutters: For cutting materials such as BEVA sheets to mend tears and holes.

Scalpels: For removing accretions that have accumulated on the front (recto) and back (verso) of a painting.

Fine brushes: For retouching and applying paints and pigments.

Spatula: For applying fillers to areas that have suffered paint loss.

Syringe: For injecting adhesive between paint layers that have tented and the canvas.

The doctor is in

Sharon Tang has been restoring paintings for over 20 years for clients like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, National Gallery Singapore and numerous private collectors in the region. Here she shows us some of the steps involved in restoring a masterpiece.

  • Art restoration removing varnish


    01 Removing the varnish

    Most oil paintings before the 1940s were covered in varnish to protect the paint while adding sheen. If the varnish has discoloured and cracked over time, it must be removed by carefully applying solvent with a cotton swab. The solvents used to remove the varnish will vary in type, strength and rate of evaporation depending on the type of pigments used in the painting, and conservators will have to take notes and photographs at each stage as the original pigments become revealed.

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