Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Fine Art Conservation - The Cleaning Process

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In this video I'm going to be focusing solely on one aspect of conservation, and that is the cleaning process.

So before I get into what I'm doing and walking you guys through

my technique we first have to understand what it means when I say a painting is dirty and that it needs to be cleaned.

Now, paintings have really two things

that might need to be removed from the painting and that is the accumulated surface grime and the old varnish.

Now, accumulated surface grime is really just that - it's grime that has settled on the surface of the painting and

and that grime can be anything from

the residues from

tobacco, tar,


all the other combustibles that are inside of pipes, cigars, and cigarettes.

It can be soot from the painting hanging over a fireplace.

It can be coal dust or oil dust from an old furnace. It can also be cooking oils from a kitchen.

Pretty much anything that lands on the surface of the painting that has no business being there is surface grime.

Now, the other thing that's on a surface of a painting that would need to be addressed and potentially removed is

the old varnish and

varnish is composed of a natural resin and a solvent that when mixed together

yield a slightly viscous liquid.

Now, this liquid can be applied by brush or sprayer or roller or rag to the surface of the painting

once the paint is fully dried or oxidized.

Now, oftentimes artists will apply a varnish to their own artworks, though not always.

Sometimes a dealer or a gallery or a museum or another conservator or a homeowner


or pretty much anybody who comes in contact with the painting might apply the varnish.

And the varnish is applied to the surface of the painting for several reasons

Primarily it makes the paintings look really good. The varnish saturates the colors.

It makes them look a little bit more intense, a little bit more vibrant, and lively.

It makes the darks look very very dark and by contrast the lights look much brighter.

And so it adds depth to the painting. It adds a certain

lively quality to an otherwise

dead painting. In addition to making the painting look good,

it can also protect the painting because it's an actual physical layer separating the paint surface from the world

the varnish can act as a barrier and protect that paint from handling, from surface grime, from

something being spilled on it, kids with crayons,

splatter from house paint,

just about

Just about anything you could think of that would get in contact with the painting

the varnish can isolate it from the actual paint.

Now, over time natural resins like damar,

copal, mastic, even shellac will change.

With exposure to UV light from the sun

and from early

lightbulbs without UV filters and exposure to oxygen the varnishes can

darken, they can become yellow or brown. In some cases they can become gray or even blue-gray.

And they can crack because they are non flexible.

They can also become cloudy or milky if they become exposed to ambient humidity or water,

and that's called a balloon.

So you have a material that has been applied to the painting after the painting has been finished and that material

has changed over time and so we want to consider removing that material so that we can reveal

what the artist saw when they deemed the painting complete.

Now, a lot of people

will say that the varnish should never be removed

that, that's a patina that is on the surface of the painting

and that it adds to the painting's

quality, it makes the painting look

better, it makes it look more mysterious. And those are all interesting

opinions but they're all


If the artist wanted to apply a patina to their painting the artist could apply a patina and tone down the colors.

But most artists when they apply a varnish do not envision that that varnish will ever become

yellow or brown or it will crack or it will become cloudy.

And so if that happens to the painting we have to understand that that varnish is now defying the artists original intention and

so that should be considered

something we want to remove.

Now, the process of removing a varnish,

while one of the more interesting and exciting parts of conservation, is also one of the more perilous aspects.

Anytime you remove something from a painting you

always run the risk of removing or altering the original paint layer and that's something that we definitely don't want to do.

So, unlike additive processes such as structural

reinforcements or retouching which are done with modern conservation materials that can be removed

safely without running the risk of damaging the painting,

removing an old varnish can be tricky.

Now, before any varnish gets removed

it's important to know the composition of the varnish and there are many ways to go about that.

A sample of the varnish can be taken to a laboratory for analysis, which

we would hope would yield the

resin makeup or the solar makeup as well, and then it can be reverse engineered,

you can take a wild guess what the varnish is and start throwing solvents on the painting and see what works,

you can use your experience,

and other evidentiary clues from the painting itself to help guide you,

or you can try to rely on

research into the artists and their working techniques to try to understand what varnish the artist may have used.

Now, once the varnish is known or there's a good idea of what kind of varnish was used,

several tests can be made to determine its solubility in various solvents. And this is important because

even if you know that damar varnish was used

you still have to understand the best way to remove that varnish and there is no hard and fast rule.

Every painting is unique. Every set of paints is unique.

Every artist's working technique is unique and every varnish is unique.

So, the removal of damar varnish from two different paintings may require two radically different approaches.

So, once you know the varnish and you have an idea of these solvents that can be used to soften the varnish and make it

soluble again,

some tests have to be made and those tests are generally made at the edges of the painting underneath the frame rabbet

where nobody will see them, and it's important to make lots of tests because

the... while

the varnish may be a unified layer that sits atop the painting, the paint layer underneath that varnish may differ in

various ways. So some colors are more fugitive or vulnerable than other colors.

Some painting techniques are more vulnerable than others.

So, in some paintings you may find that the reds and the greens are

more vulnerable than the whites and the blues.

Sometimes you may find that the background has many glazes which are more vulnerable or susceptible to damage than the

flesh colors or the faces.

So, a lot of little tests have to be made to establish a baseline and an understanding of

how the varnish can be removed and where the areas

of more peril exist. All of this goes into

the considerations for how to clean the painting.

Sometimes a painting can be cleaned with swabs.

Sometimes it has- the varnish has to be removed with scalpel.

Sometimes the varnish

needs to swell and absorb the solvent and then be removed with

swabs or scalpel or

compressed air. There are a number of different techniques for removing varnish, and again

because every painting and every varnish is unique the approach has to be tailored to that painting.

So, armed with information about the composition of the surface grime, the

composition of the varnish and its appropriate solvents and an understanding of the painting itself

and what areas may or may not be more vulnerable the actual cleaning can begin.

When this painting arrived in the studio, it was plainly clear to me that it was quite dirty. Now, I wasn't aware

What was causing it to be dirty

but I knew that the painting should look more lively, that the skin tones should be less yellow, and that

the painting had a significant amount of something on the surface that was causing it to look this way.

After examining the painting and making several tests

I determined that there really wasn't much accumulated surface grime on the painting at all.

There wasn't a heavy layer of oil or tobacco or soot. And that the

yellowed brown color was coming almost solely from the discolored old varnish.

Again with more tests and examination and some information about where the painting was painted

And when, I was able to deduce that this was in fact a natural damar varnish.

So I made some tests determining areas of vulnerability and

areas that I wanted to be particularly cautious about cleaning and luckily for me

this painting was very very stable.

Now, that's not often the case and sometimes you get very lucky and you get a painting that was well-built with good materials and

cooperates in the cleaning process like this one, so

generally, you would think that the reds might be more fugitive or some of those browns in the background or the hair,

but all of these paint layers were stable and so the cleaning process was really fairly

straightforward and not terribly difficult,

which I was very glad for. I know my client will be very happy to hear.

So, to clean this painting I employed an approach of rolling my own large cotton swabs,

saturating them with solvents and then slowly working through the painting.

The swabs are made by taking a cotton ball,

disassembling it, and rolling it onto a little wooden stick handle and then tightening that up so that it is

not loose

and then

saturating the swabs with the appropriate solvent mixture that I have determined is strong enough to

soften the natural resin but mild enough to not pose any risk to the paint. Now you can't see that I'm actually using

multiple different solvents and different strength mixtures.

You can see just the edge of one of the jars in the lower right hand corner, but in this one

I think I had four different strengths of solvents and

by and large

I will start with the

weakest of the solvents and see how that goes and then slowly progress to a stronger one if I feel like that's needed.

It's always a good idea to start with a very weak solvent or

solvent mixture and work your way up to a stronger one and than to start off with a strong one

obviously if you start off with a very strong one and it

is too strong and you cause damage to the painting there's no going back.

So, with a solvent saturated swab I can apply that to the painting and

agitate the varnish. The solvent will

soften up the varnish or turn it soluble again

and then the swab can be used to agitate or lift that solvent off. Now, there are many different approaches to

cleaning paintings.

Sometimes you have to roll the swab as opposed to rub the swab. Sometimes you have to dab the swab.

It really just depends on the painting.

Now again, I said this one is a fairly straightforward, fairly easy painting to work on

so, in this case, all I had to do was

agitate and roll to solve it.

Now, you'll notice that when I clean the painting

I'm focusing on small areas rather than the painting, the whole painting itself and these small areas,

these shapes, are largely defined by the image itself.

So, I first cleaned one arm then I moved on to the next then I focused on

one cuff, and


I'm going to start focusing on

Just that section of the mouth from the face and there are a number of reasons that I do that, among them:

It's much easier to be focused and in control of a small area

than if the entire painting were exposed to the solvent all at once.

It's just easier to be in control of what you're doing when you're working in a small space.

And two, I've found that even though the solvents have been tested to make sure that they won't harm the painting

It's always a good idea to not expose the raw painting to any

excess solvent if you can

and by making sure that those boundary lines coincide with image itself

we make sure that if there is exposure it's in an area that's not a flat color field or an open area where you can potentially see that mark.

Now, I've omitted the cleaning of the background because it was not all that interesting and it just took a lot of time.

But, here we can see the painting finally cleaned with all of that old, natural damar resin varnish removed,

the retouching completed and a new synthetic,

ultraviolet stable resin varnish applied. The painting looks good. The colors are rich and saturated.

The darks are dark. The lights are bright. There's a beautiful sheen to the painting.

It is as close to the artists original version or

vision as it has ever been and it is stable, and sound for the next 100 or so years.

So, thank you for watching. I hope you have enjoyed this small window into the cleaning process.

The Description of Fine Art Conservation - The Cleaning Process