*This post has been edited because I included information about mounting canvas to panel and I have learned a great deal about conservation techniques since writing it. 3/19/18
Hello again, so soon! I’m really sad to have discovered a circular impact crack in one of my most favorite paintings – Wood vs Muscle from 2012. This painting is the sister companion of a painting from 2007, Infrastructure.While not as technically proficient as earlier pieces, they both hold a special place in my heart for the concepts they broach. I have already talked about this piece, but now I have to discuss options for fixing it. It’s not looking good. Consider this instead, a cautionary tale.
Once you have a cracked painting, there isn’t much you can do for it. That’s why it’s best to be mindful of the Fat over Lean principle, and to work on high quality substrates, and to be so very careful during transport. This painting is from a short period where I was trying out linen instead of cotton duck canvas. I bought a few prestretched linen canvases, and I have had nothing but bad luck with this particular brand, which had been sworn off before I just recently discovered the damaged to this favored painting. I still stand by (more so then ever) stretching my own and not buying premade. I have read about stretching linen, and tried it once and it was much more difficult then stretching cotton duck. My understanding is that many professionals buy super expensive linen, stretch a large amount onto a chassis and then prime it. They then cut out the amount they need for a smaller chassis, and stretch the preprimed linen. I haven’t gotten this far yet, because I can’t afford the fancy expensive linen yet. (A hopeful “yet” indeed.) So I settled for trying the cheap kind, and I have regretted it due to cracking, now in both of those paintings. Not cracking from badly constructed paint films – a more painful kind, impact cracks. These cracks are certainly my fault, clearly the painting was not handled well at some point, and I have no one to blame but myself (I think). I don’t recall *when* this damage was done, but I do transport the pieces often, and surely that’s how this happened. But to be sure, never again will I paint on cheap thin linen. Linen is supposed to be superior to cotton duck – the fibers are stronger (it’s made from flax, the same as linseed oil!) and it will last years and years beyond the point when cotton duck will eventually begin to rot with age. Sure, the canvas will rot well after my lifetime. I don’t mean this will happen anytime soon. But longevity is what I am after, and linen is fancy and pro, and supposedly stronger. The elasticity is what gives it this strength, however what this means is it’s more elastic. Linen will loosen up while you work on it. It’s very different feeling then canvas. So while being technically a stronger weave, linen damages and dents easily. I know, it’s a tough pill to swallow. All of this is prefaced however with the disclaimer that I have never painted on fancy heavy expensive linen. I would like to try it, but this experience has perhaps ruined me on the idea, and for medium to small images I might stick to panel from now on.
Let’s look at the damage and discuss what to do – life isn’t perfect, and shit happens. It can’t actually be fixed, but I tried to minimize the damage. When either cotton duck or linen start to sag or get loose, or you find a dent, the first thing to do is try brushing the back with water. That’s the most simple solution usually. You don’t want to soak it, just brush a small amount evenly and this will tighten the fibers back up. My best option for “fixing” it is a long hard road – removing the linen from the stretcher, mounting it to a panel with PVA* or high quality acrylic gel medium (I have found gel medium to work better then PVA, but you must work quickly and it’s tricky to do) and then I’d have to remove all of the varnish to paint over the crack. It’s not possible to remove just the varnish in one area, and replace it and have it look like that isn’t exactly what I did. Looong Sigh. Removing varnish is a serious, slow, laborious task and I never want to have to do it ever. I am not a conservator, that is not a degree that I carry, and I have no desire to spend hours meticulously performing this act huffing harsh solvents trying to get it all off evenly and perfectly. I am now refraining from going off on a tangent about varnishes. Not the point of this post, not the point of this post… but real fast, if you haven’t tried Gamvar yet, I highly recommend it. I discovered its wonders a mere year ago, and I’m never going back.
Once I have theoretically removed all of the varnish without horribly damaging my painting, then I could use some Cold Wax Medium or Acrylic Gel Medium in the deepest part of the crack, to sorta fill it in. Then I could attempted to paint over the crack. Would this work? I have no idea. Oil paint layers thin and become more transparent over time. Back to the plate of spaghetti analogy. I highly suspect the crack would still be visible in the end, after all that work, but at least the crack would not be at risk for getting larger.
In the end, as seen in the photo above, I “fixed” it the lazy way. I used wax, referred to my amazing studio notes from 2012, found the recipe for the colors I used (at least the crack isn’t on the figure!) and painted – YUP! – over the varnish. I so totally admit I did this. Is is sooo bad? (The answer is yes.) This painting will forever hang in my home now, it is absolutely not fit for gallery presentation now, so there ya go. I might make it again, on panel, for gallery presentation. I was never actually happy with the hair anyway, or how you could see the hard lines of the shoulders under the layer above. Many lessons to be learned, including this one – keep impeccable studio notes. You will thank yourself one day. Comments, suggestions and pointers are all very welcome.
*Edit – I say to use PVA or gel medium to mount canvas or linen to panel, and I really want to stress that this is NOT how conservators work. It might be done for a small piece that is going on archival panel, but in real painting restoration there are materials used to preserve the piece without permanently altering it. Using PVA is permanent. Cracks can be fixed to a larger degree then I thought, but it requires relining the piece on new linen and using wax as the adhesive. It also requires ironing the piece, and it’s a huge, tedious process. Spot touch inpainting could be done over a layer of varnish, the key is that it’s not on the original paint. Things are different when a conservator is working to preserve the piece, versus the artist them self.
Edit * I decided to go ahead and try the fancy linen after all. I don’t feel one brand is sufficient to make my mind up about the nature of linen et all. I special ordered a 39.5 x 42.5 sheet of Artfix preprimed Belgium Linen and I will definitely describe my experience with it once I try it out!