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Questions to a painting conservator

woman conserving a painting

Read more about the paintings conservation department on this website.

Can you tell me what I can clean my dirty painting with?

No. We cannot advise what to 'clean' your painting with for several reasons:

  1. Without examining the painting we don't know what dirt or varnish layers are coating the paint, so we don't know what would safely remove these layers.
  2. Even if we knew what would remove this coating, it would not be safe for us to pass this information on because:
  • we don't know how the canvas or support (ie thing that the paint is on) will react to solvents or moisture;
  • we don't know how the entire paint layer will respond; moisture and solvents can irreversibly damage a painting if used incorrectly;
  • we don't know if the painting has raised or flaking paint that could quite literally come off with the mechanical action of passing even a dry swab over the top of it.
the front and back of a painting of a biblical scene

'Christ discovered in the temple' by Simone Martini, with a view of the reverse showing original marbling. The original frame is signed and dated 1342 on the lower edge.

What's the oldest painting you have worked on?

The oldest painting I have worked on is by Simone Martini and is from 1342.

What's the biggest thing you have worked on?
The largest painting I have worked on was probably 3 x 2 metres - not that large.

What types of substrates and supports (the surface paintings are painted onto) do paintings conservators have to deal with?

We work with paintings on canvas, wood, board, cardboard, copper, hardboard, plywood, board stuck onto canvas, and canvas stuck onto board.

detail showing a pattern stamped into the surface

Detail of a painting to show punchwork on the gilding

What does 're-touching' mean?

Re-touching, also called 'in-painting', refers to mixing and matching paint exactly to missing areas of the original painting, which for some reason have been lost or damaged. In other words, the filled loss is painted to look like the missing area, so it blends in with the rest of the painting.

2 images of the same detail of a portrait painting, with flaking damaged paint on the left which has been repaired on the right

Detail from ‘Portrait of Charles Blackburn’ by Gordon (Museum of Liverpool collection), before and after retouching

What do you do if a painting is flaking?

What we do depends very much on the piece in question and so I can’t give a definite answer, but generally speaking, we try to stick the paint back down using an adhesive and a heated spatula. This can be very tricky as the paint can be paper thin and very brittle - and sometimes the support has shrunk or warped. We also need to address the reasons why the surface of the painting is flaking and try to stop it happening again or getting any worse. Once a painting is flaking, to repair it is a specialist job, and it is easy to damage a flaking painting further.

If you have a painting which you think might be flaking, ask a painting conservator for advice. Each painting is different and has different problems so it is best to ask a painting conservator to have a look at it.