Is your art smoking?

Wed, 08/21/2013 - 19:43 -- Jill Pratzon

A client recently brought me this amazing photograph (above); he had visited a friend who was taking his art collection off the walls. The collector smoked cigarettes for many years, and that was evident from the empty walls. Nicotine residue, being inherently sticky, stays on objects long after the cigarette is extinguished. If the smoker has paintings, the paintings have a habit, too. 

Sometimes it's necessary to remove nicotine when cleaning the surface of a painting. A trained restorer can identify the nicotine layer and safely remove it, revealing the artist's original colors. Earlier this year, I was approached by author and artist Jeff Menges. Jeff was fortunate to purchase a painting by William James Aylward (1875 - 1956), artist and Howard Pyle student, perhaps best known for illustrating Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, as well as Jack London's The Sea Wolf. Jeff's blog provides some great information about the artist: as well as his own story about finding this painting and bringing it to me:

Jeff received a nice surprise when he found that a second, very detailed oil sketch by Aylward was actually stuck to the back of his painting. Although the sketch was pretty beaten up, it had not suffered the ravages of nicotine that the finished painting had, and gave a hint to the painting's original appearance. (Below) When I saw Jeff's painting, I suspected it had been exposed to nicotine for years due to its dull appearance. From my past experience with Aylward's paintings, I knew he was a fine colorist. I suspected the covered wagon was white, not yellow, and the sky was blue, not a murky green-brown. After testing at the edge of the painting to determine which solvent to use, I began what would turn out to be a very satisfying cleaning job.

(Below) A small solvent test in a corner confirmed that I could safely remove the stains around the signature, and that the pigments Aylward used were stable.

(Below, the final product) After removing the rest of the nicotine, we were able to fully appreciate Aylward's impasto and draughtsmanship. With an economy of brushstrokes, Aylward convincingly described his subject's costumes, the surrounding landscape and the moving water beneath the boat ferrying the cover wagon. In the future, Jeff may want me to repair the sketch - a small section of paint remained stuck to the back of the finished painting until I removed it, safeguarding it for the future. I look forward to re-adhering it so Jeff can have two restored Aylwards for the price of one.