Painting restoration for dummies

Schilderij Rembrandt huwelijksportret Marten en Oopjen

We all know those well-meant advices of granny from the good old days. You can also find many websites on internet on how to restore or clean a painting yourself. These advices vary from using an onion, potato, water with a little soap to using alcohol. Although all these products may have some properties they may help to improve the quality of a painting visibly, the chances of bringing permanent damage to the painting permanently are much higher.

Do-it-yourself restoration

A potato and onion are full of water and can make the paint come loose. They can also scratch the surface. Abrasive materials and soap are based on acids and only one drop could make the paint dissolve and bring an irreversible chemical reaction.

The use of alcohol is even more risky. Although every art restorer uses this liquid compound on daily basis, a layman usually can’t see the difference between surface dirt, the varnish layer or the color of dark paint that remains on the cotton. When working with alcohol they all show a same color on the cotton. What may seem dirt at first sight could be the removal of a layer of paint in reality.

To underline my warmings, I will show a typical “painting restoration for dummies” instruction-video (n Dutch) that makes believe that cleaning of a painting is a do-it-yourself job that anyone can do. Literally and figuratively to get tears in your eyes…


Ecce Homo

Another living example is the “restoration” of a 19th century mural painting by an elderly woman. This fresco “Ecce Homo” has been painted by Elias Garcia Martinez, on a wall of the “Santuario de Misericodia” church in the village Borga, close to Zaragoza, Spain.

The intentions of the elderly woman, named Cecilia Gomez, were so good. She already came her whole life in the little church on top of the mountains of the Borga. She married there, her two sons were baptized there and her summer-house is only 50 meters away. So when she noticed that the fresco really needed a new layer of paint, the hobby painter decided to take up her brushes. In this way she could save money for the church in times where it’s difficult to raise the financial means required for such restoration.

The images below show the laughable but above all devastating result of her good intentions:

The original mural painting on the left image. The middle one shows the fresco just before restoration and on the right final result after restoration.

Although the art world reacted shocked, the failed restoration also had a positive side-effect for the local community. The church has grown into an attraction that is being visited by tourists from the whole world. Where in the past about 10 thousand of people visited the village yearly, this number has increased to almost hundred thousand. The village responded in a commercial way. A new tourist center, focusing on the mural painting, has been opened. Local charities benefit from the revenues of the admission tickets.

Probably the revenues from admission tickets could also support a professional restoration of the fresco. Although local commercial interests will probably always prevail over the cultural heritage.

Please enjoy the amusing video below on this story:

Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue

From the previous examples is may be crystal clear that my advice is to always consult a professional art restorer and use his/her expertise before you start sort of messing around with a painting yourself. Nevertheless, also on a professional level, things can go really wrong. A case that has been in publicity for many years was the restoration of the painting “Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue” by the artist Barnett Newman. This painting was severely damaged in 1986 in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. A psychic man used a knife to make many big cuts in the painting. During the restoration however, it really went wrong…

The original painting by Barnett Newman


The contract for the restoration was awarded to the US restoration firm Goldreyer with Daniel Goldreyer in charge as chief art restorer. The estimated cost of the restoration is around 1 million Dutch guilder (about 450,000 Euro). Four years later the job has been done and the restored painting is being presented to the public under great interest. Directly something seems wrong. An official report confirms what the own restorer of the Stedelijk Museum already susprected: the canvas has been completely repainted. What makes it worse: not only another color red has been used for the repainting, but also xylene, a solvent that impairs the original paint. This leads to the dramatic conclusion that the repainting cannot be reversed. This is a fundamental breach of the requirement of reversibility. For more on ethics in painting restoration, please see my blog on Rembrandt.

The severely damaged painting by Barnett Newman

Sling mud

What follows is a legal battle of years with both parties pitted against each other. The Museum claims a cost for damage and breach of contract. The art restorer declines any liability en claims compensation for reputation damage. Only many years later the city of Amsterdam settles the case simply because continuing the law suit would keep costing a disproportionate amount of money. So in this case money wins…

To avoid new claims, the forensic research report of the Judicial Laboratory has been securely locked in a safe for many years. Some years ago the report was made public. It confirms all fears: the restoration was shoddy work. The painting has been on a temporary exposition only once since then. The art work has been destroyed in perpetuity – forever.