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Old wedding photo restoration

Restoring old oils, family photos, and watercolors for…

By Kris Grant Hold on a moment! That tattered photo you found in the attic of your great grandparents — complete with creases and a tear down the middle can live again, better than ever. Don’t even think of sending it to the “round file.” Restoration of paintings and photographs has come a very long way over the past two decades, says Jill Hardman, owner of Art & Frames by Wood Gallery in Coronado. Hardman is downright passionate about restoration work, which she calls the “culmination of my 35 years of working with art in all its various mediums.” Alas, she sighs, paintings often are the subject of benign neglect in a home or office. “We clean our carpet, walls and furniture,” Hardman chides, “but we forget our paintings have the same exposure to the elements.”

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Fire damage before

Fire damage after

Hardman has another analogy when it comes to oil and acrylic paintings: “What would our skin look like if we never cleaned or conditioned it?” Perish that thought! Today, the need for restoration can be prevented by using the highest degree of archival materials in the mounting and allowing for separation between the artwork and glass or plexiglass, says Hardman. Her gallery uses only Conservation Clear or Museum Glass as well as all archival mats. Acidity is the biggest contributor to damage of paper art. Most paper art that was printed between 1900 and 1965 contains large amounts of acid embedded in the fibers of the paper, the result

of paper mills using large amounts of acid to make wood pulp (a by-product of the timber industry), usable as an inexpensive source of fiber. The acid remains dormant in the fiber but can be readily activated by heat, bright light, moisture, dryness and other factors. The result is a “burning” and decomposition of the fiber. The paper becomes yellow, then brown. It also becomes very brittle and splits easily. For photo restoration, the gallery uses a four-step process that begins with photo digitization. In order to ensure accuracy of the color, the original photo is converted to a digital format, using a high resolution scanner, producing a 600 dpi (dots-per-inch) full color scan

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Floyd Ross turned to Art & Frames for framing of this circa 1948 photo of Orange Avenue, which he bestowed as a gift to Lamb’s Players Theatre. At the same time, he had a second piece, a photo of his father, restored by Hardman, when its previous glass frame covering it had shattered. “It’s super now,” said Ross.

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Major photo restoration before Major photo restoration after

of the photograph. Using state-of-the-art software with advanced photo-filtering capabilities, the digital image is adjusted to the best approximation of the original condition of the photograph. The image is then digitally restored, removing any scratches, blemishes, fading or other damage. The magic of digital also allows images to be altered, to remove or add objects or people or change backgrounds. And a photograph can even be changed to look like an oil painting or pastel. The final step is to print the digital image on high quality, archival photo paper, with many finishes to choose from. Archival photo paper has an added advantage, says Hardman, in that it receives the color in a much richer fashion. For oils and acrylics, Hardman notes that restoration work, done properly, is a labor-intensive process that begins with cleaning that can produce a difference that is often phenomenal, she has found. “And for God’s sake, don’t even thinking of putting soap and water on a painting – it will ruin it!” she pleads. After surface cleaning, old varnish is removed a square inch at a time with a cotton-swab similar to a Q-tip. “It is laborious and you need to have the patience of Job,” she says. “And you must be a master.” Even watercolors can be restored, Hardman notes. First, a dry cleaning process removes dust with a museumquality cleaning cloth; fronts and backings are cleaned of mildew and other contaminants. The art is then washed in clear water, followed by a deacidification bath. Paper sizing is applied to the back using Holytex for support which can later be peeled off without residue. The piece is then air dried without weights. After stabilization is determined, holes are filled and missed areas are replaced with

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Damaged marriage certificate, before (above) and after:

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From the top: Old yellow varnish removal before Varnish removal during Varnish removal after

compatible paper. Replaced areas are touched up with pencils and/or blended watercolor. Dark stains are touched up with pencil and/or blended water color to match. Finally, the art is sprayed with a museum-quality surface protector. Considering the painstakingly hand labor, restoration work is not an inexpensive process, Hardman acknowledges, but it can yield high rewards when sentimental pieces are bestowed to future generations. Or it can raise the value of certain artists’ works immensely, as often attested to by experts on PBS’s popular Antiques Road Show. “Let’s say we are simply cleaning a small 8-by -10 inch painting; it could be as little as $125,” Hardman says. “But if varnish is removed and significant holes repaired, that could step up the price several hundred.” She therefore believes clients should assess the works they are planning to restore and prides herself on being somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes in determining the age and pedigree of a painting. “You must establish the period and value all the fundamentals before you can take the cotton glove off your hands,” she advises. She begins by turning a painting over to look for clues. “You can tell how the stretcher bar was built and when,” she says. “You can see how the canvas was attached by checking the period of the nails… or staples. You will see how the wedges were built into the corners. Or not built. “Next, your art history comes into play and you begin research,” one of Hardman’s favorite pursuits. She says there have been countless times when clients have come to her with a painting and no idea of its value. She recounts a Marc Chagall piece. “The clients thought

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Jill Hardman took this photo of her grandmother from a cameo that had been broken into four pieces. She digitally scanned restored the piece on computer then made copies on watercolor paper for each of her sisters.

it was a poster and they wanted to cut it to fit into a readymade frame,” she says, still shuddering at the thought. “What they had was a hand-signed limited edition Chagall, valued at $150,000.” Yes, she says, they agreed to step things up a notch from the ready-made frame. Hardman says there have been original pieces of art brought back to life at Art & Frames that were literally thrown in the trash by insurance companies which had deemed them unsalvageable. “We recently got some watercolors that our client Christie took out of a dumpster.”

“We do a tremendous amount inhouse,” Hardman says, who also works with European-trained art restorers now living in the United States. Hardman has restored watercolors that have been sandwiched between old cardboard, “Very very acidic,” she says. “That art had no place to breath. A very bad home.” Another client was an elderly lady who brought in an oil painting of herself. “She had two daughters who wanted it vehemently,” she said. “We created a second oil copy and the daughters didn’t know which was the original and the mother wouldn’t tell.” Then there were Civil War letters dated 1863 from a family member who was a prisoner of war, Hardman said. “The trick was that they were written on both sides.” Hardman said. After finely inspecting the documents, Hardman encapsulated each page in a piece of Mylar — “which is what our original Declaration of Independence is in,” she explained — secured the pieces with archival corners for support that was matted and framed on both sides. “From the front there are actually three frames and then if you flip this project over; the same treatment is duplicated on the back. A set of inner fillets is holding the document in place and we have another frame that we milled and leafed to match the outer frame that is holding everything from the back.” The three sets of letters can be hung and be reversible. “And there is always the option to suspend.” Hardman noted. Restoration can be an emotional process, Hardman says. “Its value is priceless when you want to have a piece secured and be able to pass it down from generation to generation. “And that is what I’m about — my afterlife will be on the wall,” Hardman says with a Mona Lisa smile.

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