Tagged: oil painting lining

Discoveries While Restoring A 200 Year Old Oil Portrait

Some old paintings have a hidden history.  In the course of 200 years, a lot can happen to a painting, and it is rare to find one which has never required repair from some form of damage. This is the account of an oil portrait which had a few secrets.

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1-Joel Prouty

A few months ago I was asked to restore a portrait of Joel Prouty, a Massachusetts resident born in the late 1700′s.  At first glance, it was obvious that painting was 200 year old oil portrait before restorationcovered in layers of smoke, soot and grime, but there were no rips or holes in the canvas.  However, something was wrong with the left side of his face.  As I examined the area, I noticed an unusual cracking and surface texture from an old repair, and that the previous retouching was crude.

When I turned the painting over to see the patch, I realized that the entire canvas had been lined onto a piece of linen, and by the look of it, the lining and repair were done about a hundred years ago!  A UV light inspection revealed obvious retouching on the face, but the black background and soot hid any other areas of alteration.

In evaluating my course of action, I determined to clean off all the soot, remove the old varnish and retouching, remove the patch and start the restoration with a new fresh surface.   If needed, the existing lining would also be removed and replaced.

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When cleaning started, copious amounts of black grime were lifted from the surface.  The background was revealed to be painted in a dark, muted green.  A few spots resisted cleaning, and I soon realized that those spots were actually oil paint used in the previous restoration.  The restorer hadn’t cleaned the painting before retouching, and painted those areas by matching the color of the dirt!

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That discovery was a precursor to what I was to find when cleaning the face.  You can see in the photos that most of the paint on the patched area came off.  However, where the artist blended over into the undamaged face, the paint was well bonded to the original paint.  It was very much darker than the cleaned area.

Patch revealed during cleaning of 200 year old oil painting.

In cleaning off the patch, it was revealed to be made of an old gesso formula which was in common use a century ago.  It was harder than plaster, and had developed a few cracks, but was otherwise stable and firmly in place.  I decided to repair the cracks with Acryloid B-72 (a glue used in sculpture repair) and then to re-level the patch with an acrylic filler.  The lining appeared to still be in excellent condition, so it was left alone.

As I continued cleaning into the lower background, large areas of black retouch paint started lifting off with the old dirt and varnish.  That paint was covering some scrapes and water damage. When I got to the lower left corner of the painting, I noticed bits of red appearing.  That turned out to be the artist’s signature!  Unfortunately, the last few letters and the date below were partially missing, but enough was visible to determine that the artist was Ethan Allen Greenwood, a noted Boston portrait painter active at the turn of the 18th Century!

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Finding the signature was a thrill worthy of an Antiques Roadshow episode, but my excitement was tempered by the sight of the old patch covering what was once a large piece of missing canvas.  The repair of that area was going to take a bit of inventiveness, not just to create half a face with no reference, but to do it in a way that matched the qualities of the 200 year old surface around it.joel before & after copy

The face showed craquelure, and also a myriad of small flecks of missing paint.  Painting over the entire face was an unacceptable solution (I want to keep as much original paint showing as possible) so I painstakingly in-painted the worst of the paint-pits.  To replicate the complex surface of the original side, I decided to paint over the patch in a manner which had the visual qualities of the original side, but not the same texture.

The result is an almost pointillistic interpretation of the face, which blends well with the original area.

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Transparent Lining Saves Signature On Back Of Oil Painting

The Cape Ann school of painting has always been a source of inspiration for me.  I learned to paint in Gloucester while my family summered there, and the excitement of living in an art colony formed my ideas about painting and artists.

Now that I have several decades of perspective on what empowers the Cape Ann artists, I realize that they successfully blended Impressionism and Realism, and enlivened it with a dynamic sense of composition.

What that means is that they loved the physicality of thick, buttery paint, skillfully used complimentary colors, and designed their canvasses to provide an active, energetic visual experience.

A few months ago I acquired a masterful 1928 Gloucester harbor view by Henryk Francis Twardzik (1900-1992).  It needed to be cleaned, but it also had some condition issues which required stabilization of the canvas.

Twardzyk oil painting before cleaning and restoration.
Twardzyk oil painting before cleaning and restoration. Note the large cracks visible in the sky. Similar cracks ran all over the painting, but are not evident in this photo.

When an oil painting on canvas ages, a pattern of craquelure (cracks) often develops.  It shows up as a tracery of fine lines running over the entire surface. If the canvas is strong and the paint is flat, craquelure is usually stable, and not a problem.  It even adds a desirable antique look to many works.

Twardzyk’s paint was perfect Cape Ann, thick and buttery, holding the marks of his stiff bristle brushes.  While that is a desirable characteristic, it can also be problematic.  The paint layer on this painting is as thick or thicker than the canvas support. The painting had heavy cracks, and all of the little islands of paint were cupping and pulling on the canvas

Thick paint with cracks in foreground.
Thick paint with cracks in foreground.
The only small paint loss in Twardzyk oil painting
A small paint loss with lifting paint nearby.

The remedy for this requires two steps:  First, a vapor treatment to relax the paint and flatten it, and then lining the painting onto a new support, which is usually a polyester canvas interleaved with a sheet of mylar.

The new lining covers the back of the canvas, and while that is normally not a problem, this painting was signed and dated on the back, and obscuring the artist’s markings would be undesirable.

Signature and date on back of canvas.
Signature and date on back of canvas. The pattern of the paint’s heavy craquelure can be seen deforming the surface.  (The tracery is actually shadows and highlights on the areas where the cupping paint is pulling on the canvas.)

In a smaller, lighter painting I would opt for lining on transparent Mylar, with a translucent polyester mesh layer to reinforce the tacking margins.  However, this one measures 30″x25″ and the paint layer makes it as heavy as a much larger painting,  requiring a firmer support.  Also, the layer of mesh would fuzz-out the strong, crisp signature.

I opted for an unusual solution.  The heavy-weave canvas needed a good bond to a firm, transparent surface.  I decided on a sheet of 1/8″ Plexiglas, and a thick cushion of transparent adhesive to fill the coarse weave and provide full contact with the smooth plexi.

Here is the process used: A diluted solution of the normal mounting glue, Beva 371, (a heat-set liquid) was first applied to the back of the canvas.  It soaked in, to fill any cracks in the painting ground.  It also penetrated into the larger cracks in the paint.  (This is referred to as consolidating the paint layer.)  The next day, after that dried, a normal coating of Beva 371 was added to the back of the canvas. The Plexiglass was sanded on the side to face the painting.  After another day of drying, several sheets of Fusion 4000 (a heat-melt adhesive) were added to the back of the canvas. 

Note: The Beva melts at a lower temperature than Fusion 4000,   The two adhesives have different properties when they are set.  The Fusion 4000 becomes a flexible and waterproof sheet of archival plastic, providing a barrier between the plexi and the painting.  The Beva remains flexible, but not uniformly solid.  The Fusion 4000 forms to the contours of the canvas and the sanded plexi before setting.  The Beva provides a barrier which prevents the Fusion 4000 from fully bonding with the canvas fibers, making removal of the Fusion 4000 easier if needed.

A layer of polyester mesh was cut to overlap the tacking margins.  The center of the mesh was removed so that only about 1/16″ around the edges would be covered by the plexi sheet.

Once all the pieces were assembled, everything was tacked in place with a hot iron.  Then it was placed into a vacuum table, the air evacuated, and the temperature brought up to melt the adhesives.  After the bonding, the heat was turned off and the painting cooled for about an hour in the vacuum.

The signature and date are visible through the adhesives and the Plexiglas
The signature and date are visible through the adhesives and the Plexiglas
Twardzyk painting being cleaned.  Note the new white polyester mesh extending beyond the margins.
Twardzyk painting being cleaned. Note the new white polyester mesh extending beyond the margins.

After lining, the painting was cleaned.  Luckily, only one small paint loss needed to be in-painted.  A clear, non-yellowing varnish brought out all the colors.  When dry, the painting went back into the spray booth and the plexi received a coating of mat varnish, to make the view of the canvas beneath look like it was unlined.

The new polyester mesh edges were tacked back onto the original stretcher, and a protective backing was cut to fit, with a window opening to show the signature and date.

After cleaning and restoration.
After cleaning and restoration of the oil painting.

Learn more about this painting at http://www.rubylane.com/item/1007038-3224E/1928-Gloucester-Harbor-Marine-Oil