How to patch pained and punctured paintings
In college, one of my student jobs was to stand guard in the campus art gallery, politely reminding people not to use flash photography or get too close to the paintings and sculptures. It always felt slightly silly, but this week’s incident in Taiwan was a good reminder as to why vigilance is important to the safety and preservation of art. The 12-year-old in Taiwan was clearly just unlucky, and warnings from guards might not have made a difference in sparing the still life from having a fist-sized whole punched through it. What’s a more valuable lesson is how delicate a 350-year-old oil painting can be, and the rather extreme lengths necessary to save them for future viewers.
Weathering moderate wear and tear
Even oil paintings that have been well cared for are likely to start cracking over time, due to the way the paint drys. While it takes many years (or maybe decades) for the oil to dry, it will eventually oxidize, leaving the pigment layers behind on the canvas. The cracks occur when the outer layers of paint dry before the lower layers, and one ends up being more flexible than the other. So if there’s a change in temperature and humidity that changes the tension and surface area of the canvas, wetter paint can still flex, but those tiny expansions or contractions will crack the dry paint.
Like anything else, paintings also have to content with getting dirty. Depending on the environment where they’re stored, a 200-year-old painting is likely to have dust, smoke particulate, bits of pollen, etc. all covering the surface. Most amateurs generally make things worse when they try to clean old paintings, hoping that “oil and water don’t mix” will mean soapy water will just drip right off an old canvas. Re-oiling and vacuuming also risk causing more harm than good, as you risk removing flaking paint in the process. Professionals with experience and specialized materials are really the best option.
Fusing flayed fibers
If the canvas itself is damaged, such as with the fist-sized hole punched through Paolo Porpora’s Flowers in Taiwan, the canvas needs to be mended before the paint can be restored. For smaller budgets, you can glue a patch on the back of the whole or rip, then paint along the rip to try and match the strokes and texture of the original image. Flowers is likely to receive a more pain-staking process, where threads in the canvas will be individually aligned and fused with a sort of heat gun. Once the rip is closed, a backing or lining is usually applied to the whole canvas to help bear the weight and tension of the painting. Experts can then try to match the original painting in both color and sheen, as mismatched varnish will be obvious under most lighting conditions.
The goal of such repairs is usually to ensure the painting can still be viewed and enjoyed in the future, versus being completely indistinguishable from the original in order to trick potential buyers. In some cases, that may not even be a problem— developer Steve Wynn put his elbow through Picasso’s Le Rêve, but still managed to sell the painting for $155 million. Still, it’s probably best to just watch your step and give the art some space the next time you’re in a gallery.
Source: Boy trips in museum and punches hole through painting by Oliver Holmes, The Guardian