A Brief Guide to the Conservation & Restoration of Oil Paintings

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Put into the simplest terms, conservation refers to the preservation of and prevention of deterioration to oil paintings, whereas restoration generally refers to the repair and renovation of damaged or simply discoloured oil paintings to as close to original condition as possible. Each one of the processes involved in the restoration of oil paintings should be sympathetic and reversible, and always carried out by a professional conservator.
Reasons to Restore
All oil paintings are subject to deterioration due to environmental conditions as they age. Over time oil paintings can and often will split, rot, warp, blister, crack, cup, flake, darken, blanch, discolour, and disappear under layers of ancient varnish. Extremes of heat and cold, intrusion of water and accidental mechanical damage will frequently cause the paint and/or ground layer to detach from the canvas support or wooden panel of a painting. Canvas’ especially can also suffer inherent technical problems caused by the use of incompatible materials and/or the methods of the artist.
Lining or ‘Re-lining’
The process of attaching a new layer of support under the old deteriorated canvas support is known as lining. Many people refer to the process as ‘relining’, but this is a mistake. You would only ever ‘reline’ a painting once the previous replacement lining has, like the initial canvas, deteriorated. Lining provides strength and durability to old, brittle, or torn canvases.
The Cleaning Process
The cleaning process always begins with the removal of old layers of discoloured varnish. The removal of varnish and the cleaning of the paint layers themselves is a painstaking and potentially hazardous business that should only be attempted by an experienced fine art restorer. The chemicals used in the cleaning process (and in the lining of pictures) are pretty noxious and volatile, and have the potential to cause significant damage to both the painting being restored and the person attempting to restore it!
Since oil paintings are usually (and in my opinion correctly) displayed without the protection of glass they are perennially exposed to atmospheric pollutants such as dust, soot and smoke. Everything that contributes to the soiling of walls also affects the paintings displayed on them, and that includes the damages caused by heat, cold and damp. Varnishes originally used to protect paint layers from damage have a tendency to yellow with age, hiding the original true colours of the painting. After removing the layers of old varnish the restorer can get to work cleaning the oil colours which form the surface of the painting itself.
Consolidation & Stabilisation
In order to prevent further losses, weaknesses must be addressed by injecting media specific adhesives between the detached paint layers. This process consolidates and stabilises the layers. Heat and vacuum are employed to help the binder penetrate the between the minute, often invisible cracks.
Retouching or In-Painting
The process of retouching involves reinstating missing or damaged areas of paint in a way that blends in with the surrounding pigments without covering any of the surrounding areas of undamaged paint. After performing any necessary consolidation, filling and texturing, the restorer will re-touch the area by building up successive translucent layers of oil colour or dry ground pigments to accurately represent aged paint.
Following retouching the painting is then given a final coat of stable, reversible varnish to produce an even sheen, saturate all colours and provide protection to the paint layer.
For clients wishing to learn more – very much more – about conservation and restoration, we recommend Paul Taylor’s excellent book on the subject; ‘Condition; the Ageing of Art’.

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