Tiny brushes

Box of brushes

I posted a while back in reaction to the whole “how have you got the patience to use such tiny brushes?” thing, saying that I also do some fairly heavy-duty stuff too. These blog posts are always quite heavily influenced by what I’m working on in the moment, and perhaps I didn’t explore the rationale and the usefulness of using such tiny brushes for retouching. It was only after having to give a talk about a recently finished project that made me really think about how to explain the process of retouching and how I approach it. I know that people do things differently through the field, so this is very much a personal account, rather than a more general explanation of the professional practice.

Retouching is hugely important and often controversial. The human eye is extremely sensitive to damage, to the thing that is not “right”. A painting can be 99.9% intact but the viewer will usually find the 0.1% that is damaged. When the viewer spots this imperfection they will, likely as not, be wondering what happened, and the illusion of the painting (its purpose) is lost; forgotten. (To be honest, this has made my ability to enjoy looking at a painting as a punter more difficult, but I’m starting to get it back.) By removing or reducing a distracting blemish, the painting can function as it  was intended. However, when people see a painting in its unretouched state, they can sometimes come to think that the work of the conservator is dishonest; making the painting appear whole when it is not. Think of the Salvator Mundi, bought for $450m yet having its authenticity questioned in part because of photographs of its unretouched condition.

As an art historian, rather than a painter, I have learnt to paint through retouching, rather than bringing painterly knowledge and experience to my retouching. My earliest attempts at retouching were thwarted by completely practical things, like not knowing the consistency of the medium and the ratio of pigment to binder, resulting in being unable to get any colour at all to come off the brush and onto the fill; nevermind getting the right colour or achieving the correct level of gloss. Once I did get the paint to transfer there are all of these other factors to take into account, such as transparency and covering power, metamerism, and the dreaded (and useful) turbid medium effect.

There have been different ideas about ‘best practice’ in retouching over the years. People have debated whether or not the retouching should completely disappear or whether it should subtly differ from the original, to make it clear what is the work of the restorer. Conservators talk about “six feet/six inches”: the retouching should not be visible from a viewing distance of six feet but can (maybe even should?) be visible from a viewing distance of six inches.

So there are quite a number of practical variables in play already before I even get to what it is I’m supposed to be filling in this gap with. Sometimes it’s a fairly small loss that needs one colour painting in just to knock it back. Other times there are a lot of lines or colours that will help to reintegrate a loss. On still further occasions, perhaps for more extensive loss or loss in a significant area, such as a face, all I can do is feel my way. Using my tiny brush, I try to match a colour in the surviving paint and dot-in from the edge. As I take out the distracting white fill, it becomes more obvious to me what is going on and what should be there. As I match the colours I can find existing areas on the other side of the gap, and see whether they need to be joined up. It can be daunting to attempt to reintegrate some missing lips, for example (below a detail from a heavily damaged Madonna and Child), but not to attempt it would be deeply unsatisfactory.

Something else that I always have to do when I’m retouching is to step back. I have to read the composition to make sure, especially when retouching abrasions and scratches, that they are damage and not, in fact, intentional. A dropped quill in one of my most recent paintings could have easily been mistaken for a scratch and painted out.

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Detail of The Central Executive Cotton Famine Relief Committee by Arthur Hughes et al showing a dropped quill, which could have been mistaken for a scratch.

What helps soothe my nerves, when I am carrying out more significant retouching, is that my work is reversible. I do what I think is right, both by the painting and by professional standards, but I also do what can be undone. Should someone down the line find that I have got it wrong, they can remove my retouching without damage to the original, and embark on new treatment as they see fit.

So I use my tiny brushes so that I can stay within the lines of the fill and so that I can incrementally discover what may have been there before. And, yes, it does take patience and I do need a steady hand.

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