Friday, August 17, 2012

A piece of a 2,000 year old tradition...

It has been hot as all getup here the last few weeks and we are all dreaming about the cooler temperatures that fall brings, but while we sweat it out this week's post is about the restoration of a Chinese silk scroll painting.

The client's mother bought the painting in San Francisco years ago and she knows nothing more about it than that. Chinese painting has a long and rich tradition that reaches back almost 2,000 years. Each successive generation of artists developed new techniques and styles, but have also recognized the debt owed to those who came before. Collecting is also a tradition in Chinese culture and this preserved a great number of artifacts that are centuries old. Because of this practice there are sometimes identifying marks and stamps that can be used to date a piece, however, this did not have anything that would allow us to do further research. The style, design and content make me think it is probably early 20th century. Other than that, it remains an undated painting of two cranes by an unknown artist.

Pictured: The scroll is roughly 6 feet long and so Chelsea and Melissa had to hold it against our black back drop while I took the photo.

As you can see from the picture, the issues seem minimal, but there was some warping and cracks at the bottom of the scroll and a chunk missing at the top right. The structural issues started when the client moved from very humid South Carolina to Texas and the paper and silk dried out, causing the cracking in the silk along the bottom. This cracking was actually causing the silk and paper to separate from the wooden dowel at the bottom that anchors the painting when it is hung up. The whole dowel was in danger of being torn off completely.

Pictured: This was the most damaged part of the scroll, with tears that extended along the edge of the paper that wrapped around the dowel and into the silk border.

Pictured: The largest tear ran up from the bottom and into the image background. You can also see a green crayon mark.

After getting some good before pictures, we laid the scroll face down on a table to look at the back. I found some small punctures that needed to be addressed first. To do this we used Okawara, a type of Japanese paper that is strong but flexible, to make the patches. Then I glued the patch down making sure that the layers of paper and silk came together smoothly and wouldn't leave a noticeable mark on the front.

Pictured: There were 3 punctures throughout the image.

Pictured: Here is the Okawara patch sitting on top of the hole before being glued down.

Pictured: This is what the patches look like when they have been applied and are drying. The Okawara goes back to its original color once completely dry.

After the punctures were taken care of we moved on to the bigger structural issues. While examining the back we found that the top of the scroll was also starting to split from the hanging rod. To address the immediate problem and to stabilize it for future enjoyment we decided to put a patch not just across the torn area, but along the whole seam. A few months ago when we were working on the hinges of the Japanese screen, Melissa's father made us some 90 degree metal corner pieces so that we could put pressure on patches that were angled. These came in useful again when working on this piece because they allowed us to weigh down the patch and hold it in the same position it would hang from while it dried.

Pictured: This is the back of the top right corner of the scroll where there was a chunk missing and a tear.

Pictured: The corner of the Okawara patch is peeking out beneath layers of holytex, the metal angle and weights. And just in case those round white weights look vaguely familiar, they are road dividers that we glued felt to the bottom of. We use books and heftier magazines as weights a lot, but these are great for small areas or to hold down corners.

Pictured: This is an even better shot of all of the layers that were holding the scroll in place while the patch dried.

Once the tear at the top was stabilized we moved on to the most extensive issue, the cracks and tears along the bottom. As you can see from the pictures below, there were two large tears that are clearly visible. The area where the silk wrapped around the dowel was also ripping away. In order to make sure that the scroll hung straight without any warping, we worked in stages. Melissa started by carefully taping  the tear together on the front (although let me reiterate, please don't put tape on your posters or pieces of art! You'll more than likely do more harm than good no matter how bad the damage is). 

Pictured: Temporary tape job to hold the scroll together while we applied patches. Don't get any ideas to try putting tape on your own stuff, please!

Next we applied small stabilizing patches.With each new patch we added, we made sure that we weren't causing additional waving and were straightening out the original warping. These smaller patches allowed us to then glue down larger patches without having to worry as much about keeping the front straight because the smaller patches kept everything in place.

Pictured: I think all told we probably used about 7 or eight different patches on this section to hold together all of the tears.

Pictured: Here I am gluing down the first long patch that we put in, but in the shadow cast by my arm you can see one of the small stabilizing patches we used to hold everything together while we worked.

Pictured: This was another of the smaller patches that we used.

One of the things that Melissa and I had to be cognizant of while doing these patches was the silk on the front. Although we spent the majority of the time patching from the back, we would flip the scroll over to the front and check the silk before weighing the patched area down and letting the glue dry.

Pictured: Although we glued the patches in on the back, we had to be very careful that the glue didn't stain the silk on the front and that the edges of the tear were lined up properly. So after applying a patch we would turn the scroll over and check the front then weight everything down from that side.

Pictured: We took up two tables working on this piece, although fortunately for Gabe whose work space this usually is, it was only on one side.

One of the unexpected problems that we encountered with this piece was that we had to re-glue some of the patches because the paper and the silk were so dry they were absorbing all of the moisture from the glue leaving it without enough adhesion to stick. However, after a few areas that had to be re-glued, we finally got all of the patches to stick and Melissa was able to start the restoration.

Pictured: After the conservation work was done we switched to a different table so that Melissa could work on the ends more easily.

After we had structurally stabilized the scroll, the next order of business was to find a way to minimize the look of the chunk missing along the top right side. We weren't going to be able to recreate the pattern of the silk, at least not without sinking untold hours into this piece, so our solution was to try and camouflage it. I was able to find a card stock that was similar in color to the bronze silk and Melissa worked to match it even more closely before creating a patch that we glued in from the back.

Pictured: Ok, I know that this looks scary, but Melissa is trimming down the edges so that they will blend more easily with the patch.

Pictured: Although we weren't going to match the pattern on the silk, Melissa was able to get a good approximation of the color in the patch. 

Pictured: We ended up using an Okawara patch over the top of this to hold everything together, but she wanted to make sure that the the patch would adhere to the silk first.

While the "camo" patch dried at the top, Melissa began working on the area where the tear extended into the image. The larges one was in the paper color, but there was a smaller one in the pine needles that also needed attention. There was also some unidentifiable dark smudges and a crayon mark that we were able to minimize, although the crayon was surprisingly difficult to deal with on the silk. 

Pictured: As I have mentioned before, Katie, Melissa and Aaron all build up layers of colors in order to perfectly match the original when they are detailing and airbrushing pieces. Here Melissa is using a brown watercolor pencil to begin to blend in the lighter colored tear with the rest of the background color, but you can see the great variety of colors she is holding in the next picture.

Pictured: Here Melissa is working on restoring harmony to the area where the image of pine needles were disrupted by a tear. You can also see the beautiful job she did on the large tear running from the bottom of the scroll up into the image.
We have had a lot of fabulous pieces of art pass through the studio over the years and everyone has their personal favorite. This may be one of mine. And while the before and after photos are no where near as dramatic as many of our other blog projects, the work that we did on this piece will allow it to continue to be enjoyed for many years to come. 

It should be noted that several crucial steps in our process have been omitted. If you have any questions please feel free to contact us via email at or by phone at 818.882.1214. Also check out our websites: and Please feel free to leave comments or questions on the blog!