RESTORATION OF AN OLD OIL PAINTING
I have been commissioned to repair and restore an old oil painting. This is a very large 48 x 72 oil on canvas and, according to the owner, it is a copy of the painting "THE ORANGE PICKER" by French artist Eugene Deully (1860-1933). As far as she can remember, it hung in her sister-in-law's home in Beverly Hills, California for over 60 years.
The painting was damaged in shipping from out West due to improper packing and handling. She stored it in her garage for a year while trying to find someone to repair it. When I inspected the painting I could see that it was very dirty and had a 12" gash on the lower left and a puncture on the upper right side. Thankfully, it came from a non-smoking home so there was no nicotine staining to deal with as well.
I did some research on the cost of cleaning chemicals and repair supplies and then gave owner a price quote and told her it would take at least a month to repair, clean, and restore the painting, and there would be no guarantee on the outcome due to age and condition. I also required half the money up front. She readily agreed. Great! Next problem was how to get it to my studio!
The packing crate it was in was even larger than the painting so it would not fit into a pickup or a van. This would require a U-Haul truck or trailer. They decided to rent a truck to bring it over and it arrived a few days later. Two men carried it into my studio and my husband I set about taking it out of the crate. The sides of the crate were made of VERY thin (1/8" thick) luan panels, the reason for the damage. On the lower left side of the luan panel there was a hole that corresponded to the gash in the painting. A thicker wood panel would have protected the painting much better! Oh, well. Below is the painting and a closeup of the large gash.
The age of the painting was evident in the way it was attached to the frame with nails. We pulled out those we could, but some had to be cut with diagonal cutters. Once removed from the frame, we could see that the canvas was attached to thick/wide hardwood stretcher bars with nails, not staples. We estimated the painting to be at least 90 years old since in the 1930's nails ceased to be used. Once free of the frame we laid it face down on a clean, dry surface to relax and acclimate to air-conditioning for a few days.
In the meantime, I ordered the cleaning supplies from a restoration company called GAINSBOROUGH Products in California, an excellent company with high quality products at a reasonable price. I ordered over the phone and they asked me detailed questions in order to determine my needs. They also suggested I do the "spit" test to determine how easily the dirt could be removed. When the products arrived, I was really impressed with the careful packing, the products themselves, the safety disclosures, and the manual on restoration! This is a company that is very knowledgeable and takes a lot of pride in what they do!
What is the "spit" test you ask? Well, just as it suggests, you spit on your finger or a piece of cloth and gently rub an inconspicuous corner, preferably close to where the painting is covered by the frame. Voila! The dirt came off readily. That was a very good sign indeed! I was relieved as cleaning such a large painting could be a daunting task for sure!
Next, I set about repairing the two holes in the canvas. First, I vacuumed both the front and back of the canvas carefully but thoroughly, using a soft brush attachment on my hand vac. Next, I placed two layers of waxed paper under each tear to stop leakage and sticking, then I cut two pieces of canvas from a roll I had on hand. Each was larger than the tear and rounded on the corners. I put a generous amount of PVC glue on the back of the painting and on each patch and pressed the new canvas to the back over the tears. I rubbed the patch to ensure a good seal and checked all edges carefully, then wiped away the extra glue that oozed out. Satisfied it had good adhesion, I covered each patch with more waxed paper (2 layers) and piled on SEVERAL heavy books to press the patches for at least 24 hours. The next evening I removed the books to check the patches which were dry to the touch. I removed all the wax paper and set the canvas upright so the glue that had seeped through to the front could then dry properly overnight.
Once dry, the large gash was CAREFULLY sanded smooth to level it and remove any loose paint. The puncture was filled with a small amount of gesso to level it out and sanded as well. At this point, the painting must be cleaned before any painting can be done. Otherwise I cannot determine the exact colors to match. If you look closely, you can see some of the old flaked off paint on the floor at the bottom.
To properly clean a dirty painting is time consuming and tedious, but so worth the effort. This painting was obviously dirty, dulled and greyed. You can readily see how dirty any painting is when the frame is removed. There will always be a clean edge where the frame covers the canvas. At least two steps are required to clean. First, the cleaner is applied carefully using 6" cotton swabs on a wooden stick. You cannot rub, rather the swab is "rolled" back and forth carefully so as not to remove the paint under the dirt. You work in 2" sections, yes TWO INCHES, no more. Second, you must neutralize the cleaner in each section to stop the cleaning action or the paint will also dissolve. Notice in the photo below the light edge? That is where the frame was and my clue as to the original colors. You can see the big difference in just this small section. The lower spot is the small puncture I repaired. I cleaned around it and put a dab of gesso to level it up. Soon it will be ready to paint in.
At this point, I was spending so much time cleaning, that I decided to clean around the repairs first and alternate painting and cleaning so I wouldn't die of boredom! Countless hours were spent repairing, cleaning, and repainting this large piece! At last, this gorgeous painting has been returned to it's glory! I also cleaned and touched up the frame before the painting was remounted. The final photo is below and there's also one with the happy owner. She cried when she saw it!