Ancient Art Restoration 101

If you are interested in ancient art restoration but you are look for first-hand experience, this post is for you. As a traditional Chinese artist, Xiang Li has been helping restore art for years.

We’ve learned from her vast experience and journey and put up this post so you can also get the ‘behind the scenes’ from ancient art restoration.

What is art restoration?

Art restoration is the process of repairing and preserving damaged artworks to restore them to as close to their original condition as possible. It involves techniques like cleaning, repairing, and retouching, carried out by trained professionals to ensure the artwork’s long-term preservation and historical integrity.

Xiang Li restoring art - Ancient Art Restoration
Xiang Li restoring an original painting from the “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” Collection

Why is art restoration important?

Art restoration is important for preserving cultural heritage, maintaining historical accuracy, enhancing aesthetic appreciation, and providing educational value. Ancient art is a way for us to reenter history through stories. If a picture is worth a thousand words, each ancient painting can tell us so much about the past.

What causes the damage in art?

The most common damages Li has seen in ancient paintings are mold, tear, and wear. To spot mold on a painting, particularly in Chinese paintings, mold surfaces as black dots similar to how we spot mold in food. Mold is most obviously seen on white paint.

New Orleans Conservation Guild

But there are other ways to damage paintings as well, such as:

  1. Natural Decay: Over time, exposure to environmental elements such as light, humidity, temperature fluctuations, and air pollutants can cause deterioration. Paintings may fade or darken, sculptures may develop cracks, and organic materials like textiles or manuscripts can decay.
  2. Physical Damage: Ancient artworks can be susceptible to physical damage due to accidents, mishandling, or improper storage. They may experience structural damage, including breaks, fractures, or loss of parts.
  3. Biological Factors: Biological agents such as insects, pests, mold, and fungi can attack and degrade artworks, particularly those made from organic materials like wood, paper, or textiles.
  4. Vandalism and Theft: Throughout history, artworks have been deliberately damaged or destroyed due to acts of vandalism, warfare, or theft. These actions can result in significant loss and irreparable damage.
  5. Previous Restoration Attempts: In some cases, previous restoration or conservation efforts may have been poorly executed or used inappropriate materials, leading to unintended damage or alteration of the artwork.
  6. Poor Maintenance: Lack of regular maintenance or inadequate preservation practices can contribute to the deterioration of ancient artworks. Neglecting proper environmental controls, cleaning, or protective measures can accelerate damage over time.

How to restore ancient artworks?

It depends! Every restoration job is different

In addition, the medium matters! Oil paintings and traditional Chinese paintings often done on rice paper or silk using watercolor require very different restoration techniques.

Ancient paintings are not always possible to restore their original integrity due to many factors. One of which is our inability in obtaining the paint that was originally applied.

In ancient China, most watercolor paints were derived from minerals without artificial ingredients that are seen in our supplies today. Therefore it is very difficult to match the color.

Sometimes professional restoration artists working at the Forbidden City will look through their ancient supplies (that can get quite limited), or seek out collectors outside of the Forbidden City who may have bits and pieces of ancient colors to assist with this process. I found out these details while talking to my mom Li, and found it shocking and fascinating at the same time.

Restoring ancient Chinese art requires specialized knowledge and expertise. Here are some general steps involved in the restoration process:

1. Assessment

A thorough examination of the artwork is conducted to assess its condition, identifying areas of damage, deterioration, or previous restoration attempts. This evaluation helps determine the appropriate restoration approach.

2. Documentation

Detailed documentation, including written records and photographs, is made before and during the restoration process. This documentation serves as a reference for future research and provides a historical record of the artwork’s condition.

3. Cleaning

Cleaning the artwork’s surface is often the first step in restoration. This involves removing dirt, grime, varnish, or other contaminants that may have accumulated over time. Cleaning methods must be carefully selected to avoid causing further damage.

4. Stabilization and Structural Repair

If the artwork has structural issues such as cracks, breaks, or loose parts, these are addressed to stabilize the piece. Delicate techniques like adhesive bonding, reinforcement, or retouching are used to ensure the artwork’s integrity.

5. Consolidation and Preservation

Fragile or deteriorating materials may require consolidation to prevent further decay. Special treatments may be applied to protect the artwork from future damage, such as insect infestation or environmental factors.

Retouching and Color Matching

In cases where the artwork has lost paint or pigments, skilled restorers may retouch these areas to restore the original appearance. This process involves carefully matching colors and techniques to seamlessly integrate the restoration with the original artwork.

Varnishing and Final Touches

Applying a protective varnish or coating helps preserve the restored artwork and enhances its appearance. The final touches are made to ensure that the artwork’s visual unity and integrity are maintained.

How to become a restoration artist

Similar to how to become a doctor, this career path of a restoration artist is not an overnight success.

To become a restoration artist, you generally need a combination of education, training, and hands-on experience. Here are the general steps to pursue a career as a restoration artist:

  1. Education: Obtain a formal education in art conservation or restoration. Look for undergraduate or graduate programs in conservation or related fields such as art history, fine arts, or chemistry. These programs provide a foundation in art history, material science, conservation ethics, and practical conservation techniques.
  2. Specialization: Choose a specialization within art restoration based on your interests and career goals. Specializations can include paintings, sculptures, ceramics, textiles, paper, or other specific mediums. Acquiring specialized knowledge and skills will help you excel in your chosen area.
  3. Internships and Training: Seek out internships, apprenticeships, or training opportunities at museums, galleries, or conservation laboratories. Practical, hands-on experience under the guidance of experienced professionals is invaluable in developing your restoration skills and understanding conservation practices.
  4. Professional Networks and Organizations: Join professional organizations and networks related to art conservation and restoration. These associations provide access to resources, workshops, conferences, and networking opportunities with experts in the field. Examples include the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) or the International Council of Museums-Committee for Conservation (ICOM-CC).
  5. Continual Learning and Professional Development: Stay updated with advancements in restoration techniques, materials, and research. Attend workshops, seminars, and conferences to expand your knowledge and skills. Engage in ongoing learning and professional development to stay current in the field.

Becoming a restoration artist requires dedication, patience, and a passion for art preservation. It is a field that requires ongoing learning and adaptation to new techniques and discoveries.

Experts at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston observing Xiang Li while restoring the painting

Have more questions?

Reach us out for advice or a consultation.

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