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How to Safely Navigate The Art Market: Conservation vs Restoration

June 29, 2019


This month I thought I would continue my thoughts on a painting’s condition with a short article on restoration and conservation.  Please keep in mind that this is a very brief discussion and I am only referring to oil paintings on canvas (no other support or medium – panel, paper, gouache, watercolor, etc.).  To begin with, one should understand that there is a difference between restoration and conservation.

Conservation refers to the process of taking a damaged work and stabilizing it in order to prevent any additional deterioration or damage (in the case of mom’s expensive fine china … keeping it away from the children!).  But seriously, let’s take a painting where the paint is lifting, or flaking, off the canvas. A conservator would stabilize the problem areas, correct the issue that was causing the lifting, and then might leave the work as is … or if they did fix the damages, those areas might still be visible.

Restoration refers to taking something (painting, furniture, silver, mom’s fine china, etc.) and returning it to the way it looked when originally created.  So, if the paint on a canvas were flaking (again, paint actually falling off the canvas) the restorer would correct the problem that caused the flaking and then fix the damaged areas so that they looked as good as new.  In other words, to the naked eye you could not tell that there was any damage.

In the real world (the one most people travel in) the words are used interchangeably and let’s face it, most people would enjoy looking at something that was restored rather than something that was just conserved.  As you will soon see, in reality there may be very little difference between the restoration and conservation processes and, if needed and done correctly, either will greatly benefit your artwork.

Once you have determined that a painting needs some care, there is only one thing you should do…. consult a professional.  The restoration/conservation of a work of art is a very delicate procedure and should only be attempted by an expert (for the balance of this article I will use the words restore and restorer).  I also believe that if you own a work of art, you are its caretaker and it is your responsibility to preserve it for the benefit of future generations … remember, you are caring for a piece of history.

There are restorers throughout the world and many are very good at what they do.  In order to find the right one, I suggest that you contact dealers you have confidence in and get their recommendation – you may even find that your dealer of choice may be happy to take care of the entire process for you.

However, should you decide to ‘do it yourself’ (find a restorer that is) the next step is to do a little research and find those who not only have a good reputation, but have handled works from the same period as the work you have. Then call and either set up an appointment to bring the work in (if they are local) or begin by sending detailed photos of the work.  Don’t be afraid to contact restorers in other cities – in New York alone, there are dozens of well-trained restorers and the more competition, the better the price.

While it is important to hire someone who has worked on other paintings from the period, it is even better if you can find one who has handled works by the specific artist. Keep in mind that each artist has/had a particular way of painting and used certain pigments and varnishes.  The more works a restorer has handled by an artist, the more familiar they will be with their materials and working methods.

After the restorer has examined the work, they will tell you what needs to be done.  Ask questions about the condition of your painting and try to learn what caused the damage so you can prevent it from happening again (was it exposed to light, heat, etc.).  And most importantly, get an estimate and a detailed explanation of what they are going to do.

During your discussion with the restorer, they may use words or phrases that are foreign to you.  Below I have outlined a very basic restoration procedure for an oil painting on canvas and have used some of the ‘technical’ words and phrases you may hear.

Normally the first thing that needs to be done to an old painting is a:

Cleaning – in this process the restorer uses a variety of chemicals to remove the old, dirty, varnish.  Over time many varnishes have a tendency to yellow and this causes the work to look dull and dirty. By removing this varnish, the original layer of paint will be exposed, and all the original colors will be visible.  Please, do not try this at home.  While one can buy most of the chemicals needed at their local hardware store, it is the professional’s knowledge of their proper mixture that prevents them from damaging the work.  The wrong mixture will cause serious damage!

During the cleaning process not only will the old varnish be removed, but any old inpainting will also come off.  It is at this time that you may receive a phone call from your restorer informing you that the work is in better, or worse, shape than they thought.

They may also inform you that your work might need a:

Treatment – a process that uses humidity from a chemical/water mixture to relax structural cracks in a painting.

And/or a:

Relining – a process in which the back of the old canvas is attached to a new canvas to give it support.

This is normally accomplished with the use of a:

Vacuum/Hot Table – a large smooth table that allows the restorer to heat a painting, under pressure, to a desired temperature so that any cracking can be addressed, and the relining can be done.

Years ago, the standard bonding agents used in the relining process were rabbit skin glue or wax, today many restorers use:

BEVA 371 – this adhesive, unlike the other two, is fully reversible and much easier and cleaner to use.  This will be important if the work ever needs to be restored in the future.

Once the work has been re-lined, the next step is to place it back on its stretcher (the wood supports on the back) and repair (if necessary) any areas where there is paint loss. In order to do that, the areas of loss will need:

Fillings – something like a visit to the dentist to have a cavity filled, however a restorer will often use spackle to build up the lost area of paint so that it is almost even with the uppermost paint layer.

After the fillings have dried, the next step is to make sure they are level and smooth. Then they spray a layer of:

Varnish – this will place a protective coating between the original paint and any restoration that is done.

After this layer has dried the restorer will begin to:

Inpaint – using restorer’s pigments to color the fillings so they match the surrounding area. Like other products used in this process, these paints, since they do not dry as hard as oil paint, are fully reversible.

After the inpainting has dried, the final step is to give the work a:

Finishing Varnish – a final layer of varnish that protects both the original painting and any restoration that was done.  There are several finishes that can be used – matte, semi-gloss, gloss, etc. The right one is often a matter of personal preference.

Below are before and after cleaning images of a painting by Daniel Ridgway Knight.  In this case, the painting only needed to be cleaned and varnished, but you can see the dramatic results.

Before and After Cleaning

Before and After Cleaning








Again, this is a very brief introduction to the restoration and conservation processes.  Works on paper or panel may require different treatments, and sometimes oil paintings need more complex intervention – like those that have been relined in the past, etc.