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Painting restoration and conservation

Conservation of art paintings - The professional work of restorers

Paintings represent one of the most important cultural assets of our society. They are contemporary witnesses and bearers of history, open a window into a past time and let the viewer dive into another world for a certain period of time.


In order to preserve these works of art, whether as a preventive measure or in the form of restoration, well trained restorers are required. Painting restoration represents a form of restoration in its own right and is one of the oldest specialist areas. The restoration process, the choice of technique and the associated costs depend on the shape of the surface, canvas, wood, cardboard, carton or metal as well as the state of preservation of the object. It is not uncommon for the restorer of a painting to experience a surprise when working on the painting: the overpainting of paintings was not uncommon. Thus, preliminary drawings, studies or completed works by the artist may hide under the initially visible picture. The amount of work increases in the case of a previously improper restoration. According to this, incorrect processing of the painting would have to be removed beforehand. In any case, a professional restoration of the painting is worthwhile.

When should a painting be restored?

In order to answer this question, a distinction must be made between three forms of painting restoration: conservation, preventive conservation or restoration. Conservation serves to preserve the current condition of the painting. Traces of aging are not removed. Only the further aging process should be slowed down. Preventive conservation serves to eliminate harmful influencing factors such as external weather conditions or strong UV radiation on the art object. On the other hand, during a restoration already existing damages are repaired and the existing substance is secured. However, this measure is only taken if the readability and significance of the object have already been greatly reduced.

It is also the task of a restorer to examine the painting in detail beforehand. If you are unsure whether your painting should be restored, an expert opinion can provide information on the state of preservation. Conservation measures should always be given priority, as the existing substance will also be affected during a restoration.

Typical damages and their causes

  • Damage due to external weather conditions, e.g. UV radiation, humidity, temperature fluctuations
  • Crackle or crackling, e.g. due to the materials used or mechanical strain
  • Contamination due to deposits of dust
  • Yellowing due to soot and nicotine
  • Bugs, scratches, cracks in the frame e.g. due to improper handling
  • Wrinkles, cracks or paint rubbings in the painting due to improper framing
  • Paint splinters or kinks due to incorrect storage or transport
  • Damage caused by improper cleaning with solvents
  • Fire blisters due to heat effects
  • Blisters or cracks due to incorrect use of adhesive

Typical materials used in the restoration

  • Varnish, e.g. dammar varnish, a dammar resin dissolved in turpentine oil to protect painting
  • Wood for supplements on the frame
  • Gold leaf for gilding the frame
  • Stucco for modelling frame damage and additions to wooden frames with stucco
  • Waxes and glues for closing holes and cracks
  • Colours to supplement imperfections or colour rub-offs
  • Glass fiber fabric for closing holes
  • Solvent for cleaning

Typical tools and techniques

  • Brush for retouching
  • Collets for clamping the screen onto frames
  • Spray or spray guns for applying a varnish
  • Scalpels for removing layers of dirt
  • Carving iron and carving knife for processing wooden frames
  • Vacuum tables for smoothing the canvas
  • Microscopes for the detail work on the painting
  • Needle and thread for tissue treatment
  • Photo cameras for documentation of the restoration process (pre-, intermediate and final states)
  • Scanner for documentation and digitisation projects

The restoration process

First, the restorer examines the object for the painting technique, the substrate material and existing damage. All findings are documented photographically and in writing. In the next step, the restorer researches information about the artist, his works and the materials used at the time. In particular, the use of various painting materials and pigments can vary greatly from epoch to epoch.

Many historical paintings, for example, are hand-painted oil paintings on canvas and a wooden frame with gold leaf. Depending on the damage to the object of art, yellowed layers of dirt must be removed, the frame gilded or missing parts restored.

In the case of missing parts, the expert will try to mix in the painting materials used by the artist. He also selects suitable restoration methods. It is important to deal with the artist's entire work. The more the restorer knows about the origin of the painting, the more precisely the restoration can be carried out.

How can you restore a painting yourself?

Owners of paintings who are interested in art often paint themselves and have knowledge of painting surfaces and colours. However, this knowledge alone and the ability to use a brush is not enough. A professional restoration includes the consideration of many more factors. Above all, it is the various restoration techniques that are acquired in a special training, which distinguishes a successful restoration. The art to improve a painting in its substance and legibility and still leave only small traces on the work cannot be done by a layman. An improper restoration can further deteriorate the condition of the painting and accelerate the aging process.

Typical damage of an improper restoration

In the case of restoration by laymen, large areas are usually overpainted. The composition of the painting medium and the choice of colour often do not match. On the one hand the art object loses its expressiveness and on the other hand the different substances used can react with each other. This often accelerates the aging process. An improper restoration significantly reduces the value of the painting. At the same time, the costs for a subsequent renewed, professional restoration increase, as the additional layer of paint must first be removed. The damage is irreparable in the worst case.

Do you need a professional conservator-restorer?

In the section Paintings and Painting on our website, you will find a list of references of our registered restorers. You can also find a suitable expert in your area via our directory of restorers and our search by area.

If you are interested in painting restoration and are looking for an internship, training or further education, we offer a lot of detailed information in our job exchange as well as in the subject area education and studies. Furthermore, we also provide basic information on the job description and the training as a restorer.


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