Retouching a 17th century painting | Restoring Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait’

Retouching a 17th century painting | Restoring Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait’

Well, you’re seeing the painting now
after I’ve started doing the retouching and that is the visual elimination of
the losses and damages through new paint applied by me to cover those up and I
think it’s important to say a little bit about the kind of general principles
behind retouching that we do on old master paintings at the National Gallery. There are a few guidelines that are kind of absolutely consistent with this kind
of picture and that is first of all, all the paint that I apply, all the
retouching paint I apply, is applied on top of the varnish that I apply after
cleaning and relining so there’s a layer between my retouching and the
paint that is, itself, a removable layer. The materials we use for our retouching
are modern synthetic resins for the most part which are, themselves, quite stable
and quite reversible so it’s important to understand that all the retouching we
do is quite reversible and not intended to be a sort of permanent and
unremovable interpretation of the work of art so that’s one thing that’s really
key. I’m always asked and people always want to know if you using exactly the
same materials and the same paints as the artist, as Artemisia did in this case and the
answer is well no, not really, because we’re interested in using materials, both
the paint medium and the pigments, that are as absolutely stable as we think
they can possibly be. Part of that stability, of course, is enhanced by the
way we control the environment in terms of the amount of light and the
elimination of ultraviolet and other things that accelerate change but the
materials we use anyway, inherently, are quite, quite stable. So one thing we
always try to do, however, in trying to get an effective retouching is to copy
old master painting technique in terms of the layer structure and I think
that’s kind of the key to understanding how these paintings work because you’re
looking through many layers of paint, some are more transparent, some are more
opaque, there are things underneath that influence the layers on top and you
really need to understand that, that buildup from the bottom to the top, to do
an effective retouching because our intention, on a picture like this, with
this kind of pattern of wear and loss is to make retouchings that are. in the
Gallery, impossible to see because we want you to see the artist’s achievement, her skill, her facility or intention, all
these things and we want that to be as easily understood as possible by making
sure that things like these damages go away effectively. Now, they are all
documented: we have photographs of everything. You can also look with things
like ultraviolet light, you can see exactly the true state of the picture in
terms of its preservation but when it’s in the Gallery we want you to understand
this as a work of art. It’s not as it was but it’s as close as it can be, we think, in terms of getting the relationships working and letting you get closer to
what she was intending to convey. So, with that sort of thing in mind, you
can already see some of the buildup in various stages where I’ve been working. We talked a little bit earlier about format and how we’d added a bit of
canvas across the top and here you can see already that I’ve put in something
quite close to her priming layer, her ground, which is this kind of pale brown,
slightly warm colour and that’s something that’s underneath the whole picture and
indeed you can see it left relatively exposed in parts of the background and
then, if you start thinking about that, you can see it’s showing through in
various parts and it’s clearly what’s happening here in the background and so
when you look at an area like this you’re seeing this colour modified by a
warm transparent dark brown glaze that you see through partially and it’s that
sort of thing we absolutely tried to do with the retouchings that we do so
that, similarly, we have this colour underneath the flesh paint of the arm
and these are areas of total loss and that dark colour, relatively dark, it looks
much darker than this but that’s simply an optical effect about what’s next
to it, but that darker colour means that when I apply the lighter paint on top it
immediately has a kind of opacity, that she intended too, that’s absolutely
essential to the modeling of the form. Likewise, you see a lighter under-layer
here in the sleeve that’s been modified by a translucent red lake glaze and you
can see that it’s gotten a bit worn from old cleanings and relinings in the
past and the tops of the canvas threads or the weave are missing a little bit of
the colour so I’ll be doing a little bit of dotting there to bring that back
together and I’ve already done quite a bit of that tiny dotting of little
losses in the face and the neck and the hair and that’s one of the things I
think is most satisfying about this kind of retouching because it’s actually a
very small precise application of paint and what that does; it feels sometimes
kind of miraculous because it unlocks all this amazing modeling and
transition and control of paint and layers that’s all there. It’s just a bit
kind of lost in the kind of noise and the static of lots of little losses and,
as you reduce those, you start to really see the form: you see
the modeling, the transitions, the way the eye socket emerges from the
shadow, the cheekbone. These things are, you know, so effective. Again, there was
some abrasion and wearing there and doing a little bit of that top layer of
brown on the tops of the canvas threads suddenly mean you understand the plane
of the wheel and again the glint of the metal edge of the sharp cutting
edge of that Catherine wheel. It is leaping out now; you understand the space in a very, much more, compelling way I think and it’s all there. It’s inside
the picture and just by doing a very small amount of retouching you help make
that much more obvious to the viewer. And now the retouching is finished. We’ve
made the losses go away along the lines that we discussed earlier; building up
the layers from the ground color which you can see here on the right edge,
through the body colour and glazes and so the actual holes and damages have been
compensated for and I think also, maybe more subtly, we’ve been working on
reducing the effect of the small wearing and abrasion that you could see before
any retouching in some of the transitions of the flesh or indeed in
the background. The other thing that we’ve been thinking about is reducing, but not eliminating, some of the effects that have occurred in the background
due to the paint simply becoming more transparent as its aged over the
centuries. So some of the effects of brush work and underlay, as you can see
showing through from behind, were showing more than would have been the
case when the picture was made and so we’ve reduced some of the effects only
to the point where we think it became too apparent in her intended reading of
the composition. In addition to compensating for losses and damage, as we talked about earlier, we have taken that decision to extend the top of the
picture by between one and three centimetres and so now you see it with
that extension retouched fully which means creating the tip of the palm frond,
adding the one pearl and small elements of the halo which still is cropped but now,
I think, works very effectively with the ring of jewels completed. These are the
kinds of retouching decisions that we take as a group, in discussion with
Letizia and my other colleagues and we kind of work slowly and talk and see how
we think it works. This strip down the right, as we mentioned earlier in
talking about the cropping, is the original tacking edge that was unfolded
at the time of the picture’s lining at least 100 years ago so we’ve kept that,
that will be covered out, covered by the new frame. It’s painted, in fact, in the
simulation of the ground colour which is underneath the whole painting and I
would also simply like to stress that all the retouching we’ve done is on top
of our varnish. It is in materials that are reversible, it’s documented in all
the photographs that we take so you can see exactly
where the damages are and indeed you can easily see it with an ultraviolet light
which I can show you, for example, here in the arm: the losses you’ve seen earlier,
the retouchings show is very dark under ultraviolet light and things like the
damages along the seam and indeed all the retouching that we’ve done is very
easily identifiable with this torch and with the documentation that we’ve done
before. And so now she’s ready for her new frame and we’re very excited to see
how it’s going to look.

17 thoughts on “Retouching a 17th century painting | Restoring Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait’

  1. Great video and a beautiful painting. I'm curious to know if you match the colors visually yourselves or do you use a computer to match them?

  2. Good – and open about your process. But if we look at the disaster of the restoring of the Leonardo's Salvatore Mundi has utterly vandalised the original intention if you look at the original after cleaning, as seen on the recent Guardian article that showcases the differences that many weren't aware of.

  3. you guys are spending a lot of time on this painting… isn't there some other painting maybe you guys could discuss occasionally?

  4. We had a problem with a damaged painting years ago. The picture was stolen by someone who didn't have a hope in hell of selling it on and was recovered in a much injured state. It was insured, but for some months they refused to pay out. Claiming they needed to see how damaged it looked AFTER it had been restored to access degree of payment! As you can see from this restoration video you can't permanently replace what has been lost. What's lost is gone forever. You can only make those losses less visible. They paid out eventually, but can you imagine them doing that with cars? LOL

  5. Why wouldn't you use a Mahl stick or a bridge, though? Touching, and frankly at some points it seems leaning with some weight on the canvas with your hand seems at odds with the care presented during this restoration. It feels like an unnecessary amount of stress and risk that could easily be prevented.

  6. I am absolutely loving this series. Thank you very much for posting it. I very much hope to be able to make it to the gallery when it is put out on display.

  7. This is fascinating. It must feel daunting to work on one of the old masters' paintings and very satisfying seeing the end result. I hope you continue this series

  8. Save some time….skip to the 3:20 time mark, watch till 3:29, then skip to the 4:30 mark, watch till….better yet, find a Baumgartner restoration video. He actually RESTORES a painting while he's talking.

  9. Love these videos of professional restoration jobs. After the retouching, did you not add another layer of varnish? You don't say so, though.

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