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
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 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
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 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
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
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.