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See How A Restorer Brought My Old Master Painting Back To Life


Usually when we see a painting in a museum exhibition or in an auction catalogue, the piece has either been kept in good condition, or it’s been cleaned up to look its best. But what happens when you come to own a very old painting that’s in need of some tender loving care? For pity’s sake, don’t break out the soap and water: you need to seek the services of a professional art restorer.

That’s just what I did recently, with a very dingy, dirty oil on canvas that I picked up at a local auction. The painting depicts the Annunciation, that moment described in the Bible when Mary consents to become the mother of Jesus.

Underneath all the surface grime and cracking, I suspected it was probably a Northern Italian piece by a lesser artist, dating from the second half of the 17th century. Despite its rather sorry state of preservation, the painting struck me as a work of art that had lived a rough life, but was still worth saving.

Enter Katja Grauman, a professional art restorer I discovered online. After seeing the before and after examples on her site, I knew that if anyone could unlock the hidden potential in this dirty, disintegrating bit of painted old cloth, she could. I recently sat down with her in her Virginia studio, to discuss what she had to do to bring this very old work of art back from the brink, and what it takes to be an art restorer.

Enter Katja the Restorer

WN: Let’s talk about this painting, from the time you got it, to where we are now.

KG: Well, the painting was in poor shape. It needed some imagination to see the potential in it. But I think you’re correct, and we can establish that it’s northern Italian, 17th century, by a provincial artist.

WN: Nice. I like being right.

KG: The canvas was all hand-made, and the paint was very fragile and flaking. With old paintings it doesn’t take much to damage them, because the canvas itself can get very brittle with age so that it no longer supports the paint. And once the canvas is dry and fragile, any pressure on it can cause breaks, tears, and further deterioration.

Basically there are two components in restoration: one is conservation, where we stop the damage and deterioration of the painting, and stabilize it, and then there’s the restoration component, where we clean it and infill the missing parts, turning it back into the painting that it once was. Your painting needed both, conservation and restoration, very badly. So the first thing to do here was just to stabilize the paint layer, and then line the canvas properly.

WN: Can you explain what lining is?

KG: Lining is adding a new piece of linen to the back of the painting. Since your painting was so fragile and had multiple fractures and flaking, and some tears in the canvas as well, what we had to do was add a layer of Mylar, which is an inert piece of plastic that we put in as a support layer.

Nobody will ever see it, because it’s sandwiched in between the original canvas of the painting and the new canvas on the back. It adds strength and it’s fully reversible, if it needs to be removed later. That’s the current thinking in restoration, that everything we do has to be reversible.

Then there was the inpainting to do, to fill in the missing areas. Your painting was painted in oils, but we don’t use oil paint in restoration, because we try to distinguish between the original and the new. Some Old Masters that were restored in the past were restored using oils, but it’s often impossible to remove this, because the oil becomes a part of the canvas.

That’s why now, the proper restoration method is not to use oils, but acrylic pigments, which are chemically very different from the oils and take different solvents. Later you can clean off the restoration safely, if needed, without damaging the original oil paint. Sometimes we use watercolors as well. It really depends on the project.

WN: What do you think had happened to this painting over the centuries, to get it in the state that it was in when you first got it?

KG: Time is the worst enemy of art. So you have the natural processes that are happening to any painting, which is exacerbated by not having the painting in a climate-controlled environment. The chemistry of the pigments means that a normal temperature range is insignificant when it comes to causing changes.

But really it’s about dryness and humidity. Over time, if you take a painting from New York, where it’s relatively dry, to Florida, where it’s very humid, within a few days the painting reacts, it absorbs water from the environment, the canvas enlarges, and pulls the paint apart. And then as it dries—say, if you put it in a heated room—the canvas shrinks back. This constant push and pull creates a craquelure, in addition to the normal chemical craquelure that occurs as the paint dries.

As the paint dries, the topmost layer dries first, and then it slows down the middle layers, so there’s a very specific but normal chemical process involved. It’s like wrinkles on your face: you can’t avoid them, unfortunately, but they’re normal.

Author’s painting after cleaning.

As your painting aged and got dirty, the varnish was completely soaked in, meaning no one had touched the varnish in over a century. Dust and grime, fireplaces, candles, smoking, all affected it. It was kept in an environment that was very dry, so probably at some point the owner just put it in an attic, because it wasn’t very attractive anymore. It did have a previous restoration, over 100 years ago before it got so bad, because somebody recognized the value of it.

WN: Back when people still appreciated artistic skill.

KG: People used to recognize that paintings like these were valuable: the materials were expensive and the artists were expensive. In Old Masters, there are no bad paintings. It’s not like in Modern and Contemporary Art, where everybody is an artist these days. In 17th century Italy this was not so: to get a commission you had to be good, you had to be trained, and it took a lifetime to be trained as an artist.

WN: And also just to build up a clientele.

KG: Right, exactly. So the painting had been restored before, by someone who recognized the value of it, but it was overcleaned. Varnishes have to be cleaned off of old paintings periodically, every 40 to 100 years, depending on the condition.

Over the years, all old paintings have been cleaned, but before organic chemistry very abrasive soaps and ammonia were used to clean paintings, so a lot of Old Masters have suffered in the hands of “restorers.”

How One Becomes a Painting Restorer

WN: I’m curious, with respect to your career path, did you always intend to do art restoration, or did that came to you later?

KG: Well, I came from a former communist bloc country, Czechoslovakia, and under the system there when I grew up, the regime made sure that they captured children with talent early on. So starting around the second grade, there were specialized government commissions going from classroom to classroom, looking out for children who showed artistic talent, athletic ability, or musical talent, to place them in specialized after-school programs.

It was suggested that I take art classes, because they saw some talent in me, and then the natural progression was for me to go on to art high school. And that led through university education, so that I was on a single career path from very early on.

WN: So you’re choosing your career at…14?

KG: At 14, yes. I gravitated toward it because I’ve always liked old stuff: picking up old things, finding things, repairing things. But once you’re on that career path, the training is highly academic, so you have to go through vigorous schooling of copying Old Masters, and figure drawing, and being able to change the 3-D image that you see into a 2-D flat painting or drawing. At the same time, they were focused on eliminating every trace of your own creativity.

WN: Why’s that?

KG: Because in art restoration, you can’t really have your own artistic style develop. That’s why when people ask me, “Are you an artist?” I have to say, “No.” Academically, yes: I can paint anything. But not in my style.

You have to tell me, “I want you to paint a painting in Rubens’ style,” or “I want you to paint a painting in Matisse’s style,” and that I’m able to do. My own? No. Of course you can’t entirely avoid having some of your own style in art restoration, but not very much. You can’t really cultivate it.

WN: That’s really interesting: the sublimation of the self for the sake of a career as an art restorer. I never thought about that before.

KG: When you study art restoration, you’re never given a canvas and told, “Paint.” You’re given a canvas and told, “Make a perfect copy.” I would have been a very average artist, but I can be an excellent art restorer, because I have artistic talent combined with other talents.

Author’s painting in Katja’s studio.

For example, you have to be something of a scientist, because you have to learn a lot about chemistry. You also have to learn a lot about history, because it’s a multi-faceted field. Plus, you have to be really crafty. You have to be comfortable sitting on the ground, or climbing scaffolding, or doing a lot of dirty work, repairing stretchers, removing frames, dealing with old things that are fragile, or treating something that only has sentimental value as if it were a Fabergé egg.

WN: Right, because it could be an object that doesn’t have a very high monetary value, but it’s important to the owner.

KG: People have a very strong attachment to their art. When they bring their art to the studio for restoration, they have a really hard time visualizing what is going to happen to their piece, and sometimes the parting with it is difficult. So normally when a new client comes, who has no understanding of restoration but is very attached to their piece, they need time to get to know me and feel comfortable. Sometimes there’s a lot of listening to family stories.

Detail of painting after cleaning, before restoration.

WN: So there’s a lot of cultivating trust? Because someone who’s in the art business is looking for a restorer who knows what they’re doing and has the training and the reputation to do the work. But someone who’s bringing a painting of great-grandfather’s prize pig, which has never left the family since it was painted, can have trust issues.

KG: It’s almost like dating, you know? The first impression is very important, because I have to know what I’m talking about—which I do, but it’s a lot of work sometimes. I’ve noticed that some people are very uneasy about leaving their paintings, and at first I was taken aback by this because I’m a professional. And so of course, I couldn’t be in this business if I were to destroy or damage your painting!

But I’ve had to learn to convince people over and over again that it’s actually good for them to leave the painting here, and that what I’ll return back to them is added value. A good client is an educated client, so I take my time to explain what I’m doing, if they’re interested—and most people are very interested.

Detail of painting after cleaning, before restoration.

WN: What are some of the major misconceptions that people have when they’re coming to you for the first time?

KG: Some of the common misconceptions come from people who watch a lot of programs like “Antiques Roadshow,” where they’ve heard that when a painting is dirty or damaged that it has a “patina,” and that this is a good thing for the painting. It’s not.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain that the varnish, which is the topmost layer of the painting, ages and oxidizes, but that layer is removable. It’s put on a painting specifically to protect it, but over time as it yellows and darkens, it can obscure the visuals, and you won’t be able to understand or enjoy your painting. The varnish can be removed safely, and especially with old paintings, it’s routine.

WN: It’s a bit like having cataracts.

KG: Exactly. Some people grew up with dirty paintings, so when a painting is cleaned, they’re very surprised. Sometimes people don’t like their clean paintings, and I have to explain, “No, your painting has always been this bright. The varnish just obscured it.”

WN: And so overall, you’re helping bring back what the artist originally intended you to see.

KG: Right. Properly done art restoration enhances the value of a piece, it doesn’t detract from it.

After restoration.