Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Healing History: Restorations

The language of glazes and clays is articulated in their flaws, color shifts, and edges. If a decorator missed a detail or an angle with the airbrush, it shouts to the experienced eye. The secrets and habits of the producers are revealed in silent, fragment-poetry. The downside of this is, on some odd level, when I see a damaged piece, it feels very negative. Badly glued breaks hurt my heart. It must be the same for a lot of vintage collectors, because it is common  to seek professional restoration for damaged pieces. Some restored pieces experience a successful show career, after rescue from a dollar box at a flea market. Other collectors just want to have a favorite old piece standing back on the shelf, for their own enjoyment. Restorations ease a visual shock or loss that is hard to explain to non-collectors.

I had not seriously considered doing professional restorations before last year, doubting my knack for translating glazed pigments to acrylics. What I knew of producing ceramics made me feel that it was impossible for cold paints to ever be visually correct. It took a few years of painting dinosaurs and other models, in mixed media, before I could develop the translation. The lining up of breaks, then filling chips with epoxy putty, is not difficult. Anyone can use sandpaper. Replicating the depth of the glazes, fooling the eye into believing the glaze continues uninterrupted, that is the real magic.

Restoration by Kristina, for a private collector.

I was previously thinking about the process in terms of, "This must be patched over with acrylic paint, then spray sealer".

The problem with thinking of it as a patch on top is that the ceramic itself is composed of layers. Stuff laying on top will always look like stuff laying on top. One has to restore the layers of glaze and underglaze pigments to replicate the optics, not just match colors. What does that mean? It means one has to think beyond matching colors.

Don't get me wrong, matching colors is very important, but it is not the only component in painting restorations. People have written me, asking me to type out how to do restorations. I can type exact instructions for glue, mixing putty, application, and sanding. I cannot explain in words how to match paint colors, because no two people perceive color alike. In fact, the eyes of an individual may perceive color differently from each other. I have a warm eye and a cold eye, and they were never damaged or diseased in any way. If you've taken a Color & Light Theory class, none of this is news to you. If you work closely with artists, you may have been involved in, or at least overhead, an argument over what color something is, as it sits, directly in front of them. This is why, even if you sit down with a restorer and watch them blend to match ceramic colors, it might only serve to confuse you. 

One can purchase color theory books, and do the exercises in acrylic paints. The exercises can teach you what looks cold and what looks warm, and whether or not your eyes have a talent for discerning colors. The lucky ducks in this field of study have something called a strong "color memory". You will know almost immediately whether you have this, and if you do, replicating colors for restorations will go very smoothly for you. It will, in fact, be confounding to observers as you mix a match on the first or second try, every single time. Yes, there really are people with this talent! If you don't have good color memory, you will have to ensure your matches with the ceramics by constantly comparing with the piece, and countless color dabs on the ceramic surface. You may find that the base colors you were using all day were completely wrong in color temperature, and you have to start the process over.

This A-shaped test swipe was not quite right.
It had to be lightened to match the hoof wall's darkest shade.

To further complicate the process, when acrylics dry, they look different than they do when you are mixing them. They are polymer-based, so they don't get mixed dry on your palette. 

You are looking at wet stuff and must either test it on a thickly-painted spot and use a blow dryer to see how close you are, or have recall of what each component will look like dry. Here is where good color memory and perhaps experience with raw underglazes will help. Raw underglazes don't resemble their mature fired colors when they are applied, either!

In the case of restoring vintage Hagen-Renakers, the slip was often tinted one color, with a contrasting color of underglaze sprayed on top as shading. So, one must match the clay color, then match the color, opacity, location, and direction of the overspray. By opacity, I mean, it is seldom the same of pigment-to-suspension ratio as the bottom (clay color) layer. For other factory ceramics, you must adapt your process.

This Beswick Zebra was decorated entirely in translucent underglazes. 
It would have been impossible to match with traditional opaque acrylics.
Restoration by Kristina, for a private collector.

You can try watering down your shading acrylics, but usually this results in dark pigment dots spaced further apart, and it courts airbrush runs. In fact, the overspray color may be need to be so translucent, that you must consider art inks and weathering products. 

I can't emphasize enough: these are great products. I have not only used these for airbrushing in this capacity, but I have also hand-brushed them on restorations and drawings. I get my airbrush inks and general airbrush supplies from TAG Team Hobbies.
(Tell Tom that Kristina sent you.)

Let's say the color matching, even dry, is achieved. The mended, sanded smooth break is painted with it. It stands out like a sore thumb. 

If you examine the glazed ends around the break, you will notice the character of the glaze. If it is a gloss glaze, this is pretty straightforward. Test the color on something else first, spray with gloss, and see what that brand of gloss spray does to that blend of dried, applied paint. 

If it is a matte or stoneware finish, it is more difficult. If stoneware, is the original clay body color showing through the decoration color in little gaps and blips? Is there a metallic or iridescent effect? 

The red-brown spots showing through this stoneware grulla are the clay body.

If matte, is it a thick, milky matte glaze? Is it more of shiny matte, a satin? Is there a hint of color tinting the deep, pooling areas of the glaze? Is it a perfectly dry, flat matte? Using pigments and sealers, one must test and match out the glaze on top. As you can imagine, this can mean completely stripping all the paint down to the break, and starting over with underpaint that looks right under the '"glaze" layer.

If you ever do restorations for others, you may be asked to do "cosmetic" work, along with an acquired-damage restoration. I personally love the idiosyncrasies of ceramics, and that includes their flaws and the fingerprints of the human beings that made them. I don't believe in correcting factory flaws ("congenital defects"). My philosophy is, "Less is more". My job is to replicate what the horse looked like when it left the factory, and that means if a color or texture flaw runs through a break, I replicate it. 

Restoration by Kristina, for a private collector.

Texture? Yes, many matte horses have a sandy or rough texture along their seams, which naturally intersect the breaks on legs. One must closely examine whether the texture is in the bottom layer- and shows up via the over-shading color- or if it is only in the clear, topmost layer. The restorer must use tools to gently replicate the texture in the appropriate layer, while that layer is still wet! It is a nail-biting race with sprayed media, in a window of about 4 seconds or less. It's easy to spy a restoration, if texture was ignored; a wide, smooth band around a leg, on a sandy-textured horse, destroys the illusion of a perfect match.

Let's look at a case study of the worst possible situation you may face when restoring:  invasive and careless old restoration work.

Restoration Case: Crusader

This Monrovia Crusader was not in the previous article about this mold, so you have not seen her before. When she arrived, I only knew she needed a leg break repaired. I didn't know the state of the older restorations to the horse; if you don't restore things yourself (or make pottery), it can slip past notice. It is common for collectors to forget how many restorations a single horse may have. Many of these pieces are decades old, and change hands regularly. The first things I noticed on this Crusader were colors that were decidedly not original finish (OF). 

Flesh on cheek, iridescent green in jawline, black in ear and crackles.

Blue? Brown?

Scales? And blue specks?

This told me that I needed to strip the entire horse of acrylic paint. I found black paint between ears, in eye corners and nostrils, and inside the pourhole. This Crusader had been painted solid black by a previous owner, sometime in the past. I used rubbing alcohol, which dries quickly, to loosen and scrape off the old paint. You don't want to use anything that stays super-wet, as it will carry pigments or dirt down into the crackle of aged pieces like this. It stains the permeable earthenware, beneath the glaze. You won't be able to get it out!

Under the paint, I found more troubles. The restorer did not adhere to the "First, do no harm" or "Less is more" philosophies. The entire restoration job was overkill in mixed media, and yet didn't properly stabilize the breaks. In multiple locations and in many ways, the restorer cut or wounded the unbroken areas of the horse and did complex but weak reinforcing. Whole sections of legs were dremelled away, and cut with a wheel, to lay in tooling resin and weakly-mixed bondo. Shallow channels were gouged through canons and joints to house putty and pins. It took me a couple days to alcohol, wipe, scrape, and dig out the undamaged canon bones' detail.

Left is Before.                            Right is After.

The broken former repair literally oozed apart in my hands. I scraped all the gummy softness out, removed the useless soft copper wire "pin" in the side channel, and proceeded to pin it with substantial 14-gauge steel, in the center of the limb. 

Former restoration's copper wire "pin", about the thickness of a horse tail hair.
All that yellow stuff is tooling resin that was poured in a leg, where ceramic had been removed.
The blue is Bondo, some of it just little pinpoints, ground into the damaged glaze surfaces.

It is worth noting that using a power drill, or a drill bit on a dremel, is dangerous for ceramics. The drill bit grabs into the clay, forces it with torque, and causes shattering. When I need to place a hole in each end to set a pin, I use a long sanding "needle" dremel bit. It has no grabbing helix.

Good                                                   Bad

The really crazy part is, under paint and bondo, the fourth leg was mint! The restorer had spilled or slathered the bondo everywhere, and then decided to paint the undamaged limb to match the other three legs. This is the opposite of what a restorer should do. The point is to retain as much original surface as possible. This horse was about 60% OF, when it came here. I think it's more like 90% OF now.


A: As she arrived, two views of same leg. The blue is Bondo showing through the previous restorer's finished work! 
B: Bondo blue, mismatched paint over-sprayed up the entire leg, and dried mud (?) on the hoof.
C: First attempt to strip old paint, finding the real knees.
D: Paint removed. Bondo that is not mixed correctly is soft and rubbery. The odd "horn" on the fetlock front is tooling resin that was dolloped on the leg. All of the dimensional excess bondo and resin had to be scraped and buzzed down!
E: First paint attempt, on thick to try to hide the bondo blue. Wrong color, too much overspray, strip it and try again.
F: Spray sealer is wet.
G: Spray sealer mellowed, after resting overnight.

A: As she arrived, with paint almost to the elbow. Bondo blue.
B: First layers of stripping.
C: Paint all off.
D: The previous restorer cut a groove across the break, into "healthy" ceramic, laid in a tiny bit of copper, and filled it with bondo.
E: After another round of Aves filling and sanding.
F: First paint attempt, wrong color, too much overspray, strip it and try again.
G: Less overspray, but the sealer ate the paint! They have always worked harmoniously, before. Strip and start over.
H: Spray sealer is wet.

A: As she arrived, with paint to the gaskins. Bondo blue.

B: First layers of stripping.
C: Paint all off.
D & E: The previous restorer cut a groove across the break, into "healthy" ceramic, laid in a tiny bit of copper, and filled it with bondo.
F: After first round of Aves filling and sanding.
G: Base coat had too much overspray, strip it and try again.
H: Completed, with factory-direction airbrushing.

 These scratches are dremel grinding skips, from the previous restorer not controlling the tool.
There were wounds through the glaze in multiple areas of the horse, some of which were OK to cover with paint.
It would have overly-darkened the whole hoof and coronet to cover this.

Restoration by Kristina, for a private collector.

That play-by-play either convinced you that the horses you want to fix yourself are completely achievable, or you are now certain you'd rather have someone else do it. That horse is one of the worst case scenarios, so few restorers will see that cross their workbench. Don't be afraid to try; all proper restoration materials can be easily removed for another try, later.

It's only been a little over a year for me, doing restorations for hire. The learning curve has been sharp, and each new job is a challenge. It is never boring! I can't wait to see what I learn in the next year. When each is completed, I enjoy the happy, warm feeling that it is "back", as the factory meant it to be.

If you are reading this blog with regularity, you already have some fondness for equine art history, and my next mission may interest you. I am restoring three plaster models by the legendary George Ford Morris. Stay tuned for the next Restoration Case at the Muddy Hoofprints blog.

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