By understanding how a restorer thinks, you can decide if you are working with the right person
Susan Minassian spent her free time painting, with a focus on the old masters, when a gallery owner said “You’re such a good painter in this style, why don’t you just start restoring art.”
Minassian took this idea seriously and went to England to apprentice. “I already knew the painting part of it, I just needed to learn the craft side,” she remembers. “I needed to learn about solvents.”
Solvents are alcohol mixtures that remove dirt and varnish from a painting. Varnish yellows, which is why it needs to be removed and replaced. Restorers need to be very careful that the varnish they are using is only removing the varnish or dirt–and not the paint. “I try the mildest solvent, which is a low level alcohol, and go up [in potency] from there” Minassian explains. “It’s a trial and error.”
After speaking with Minassian we gleaned that restoring a piece of art requires a cautious due diligence. Restorers need to consider aspects like the time period, materials, type of canvas, and cost before they agree to work on a piece.
Here are some questions that a restorer should ask before agreeing to restore a painting:
1. When Was This Work Created?
A painting’s creation date affects the materials that could have been used on the canvas. The old masters, for example, were generally using a simple homemade paint. Minassian knows the mixture and other materials of the era and is comfortable working with them. In some cases, she will come across a modern painting that is made from mixed materials. “They will have acrylic paint, oil paint, acrylic varnish,” she describes. “The sad thing is that the artists don’t know the chemistry of their materials that well.” For example, if you put acrylic paint on an oil painting, the acrylic paint will eventually peel off. In this case, the only chance you have to restore it is if you can reference the image you have listed in your Artwork Archive account. A restorer may be able to try to re-affix or re-create the acrylic paint in the original place.
2. Is There an Original Photo of This Painting?
Especially after catastrophic damage, like a hole or pieces of paint falling off (as discussed above), a restorer likes to have a photo of the original painting. This gives a visual idea of the work ahead and the end goal. If Minassian doesn’t have an original photo to reference, and the repairs require a recreation, she will generally recommend the client go back to the artist. If the artist is no longer living, the best bet is consulting a gallery that has worked with the artist before. In all cases, it’s safest to have a reference photo if there happens to be damage to repair. You can store these photos in your Artwork Archive account.
3. Do I Have Experience Working with Similar Paintings?
Every restorer should have a portfolio you can reference. You want to make sure he or she has experience with similar projects. The best way to confirm this is by requesting before and after photos, which is a normal part of the hiring process.If a restorer is working on a modern painting, with the majority of his or her experience in antique paintings, repairing a hole would require a different technique than usual, for example.
Canvasses have made significant changes over the years. For instance, all canvasses made in Europe before 1800 were hand stretched. Antique canvasses are much easier to repair when they are ripped because they are loose and easier to bring back together. A machine-made canvas produces a gaping hole when torn and it’s more difficult to piece it back together. “It’s a specialty to know how to close a tear properly when it’s that tightly stretched,” Minassian confirms. Because her experience is with older canvasses, if a client brings her a hole to repair on a newer canvas, she will generally refer it out to her local museum’s conservation program.
4. Will My Professional Insurance Cover This Painting?
Professional insurance will cover the cost of your painting in the event of a loss. Like most businesses, restorers have an insurance plan that will protect them in the unfortunate case of an irreparable mistake. Certainly confirm that your restorer has a coverage plan that is large enough to cover your pieces.
It is also the restoration expert’s responsibility to notify you that the professional insurance is not sufficient, and you cannot work together on the piece.
5. When Was the Last Time This Painting Was Cleaned?
The museum standard is having a painting cleaned every 50 years. Varnishes are yellowing by that point. In a lot of cases, you can’t tell your painting needs to be cleaned until you take the frame off and see how pristine the protected edges are.
Restorers generally give free consultations on an artwork’s condition. Minassian will accept photos by email and let you know her ballpark estimate of the work needed and cost.
Work with a Restorer Who Understands the Complexity of the Project
The key is to work with restoration experts who are confident enough to know their strengths and weaknesses. One of the top points that impressed us when speaking with Minassian was her clear understanding of what she is very skilled at. And even more so, her ability to refer a piece out when appropriate. This shows a professionalism and trust that supports her illustrious career. As the collector, you can use this insight to understand and confirm if an art restorer has the appropriate experience to work on your collection.
Understand the difference between an art restorer and a conservator, and more, in our free e-book, Essential Guide to Collecting Art.