Salvaging Rescued Artwork

Written by Mark Rogers

Displaying a piece of artwork that you’ve saved from a thrift store, flea market or garage sale can bring you a sense of pride, but these prints and paintings are not always in the best condition when you bring them home.

If you don’t want to shell out big bucks going to a professional art restoration service — and your artwork isn’t severely damaged — there are a few ways to spruce up a not-so pristine piece of art.

Refresh the mat board.

Oftentimes, the mat board is the dingiest part of vintage art. White mat board shows even the most minuscule speck of dirt, stains and dullness, so simply replacing it with a fresh mat can breathe new life into old art. You can get creative and use colored mat board as a modern touch or remove the mat board completely to create a whole new look.

Replace the picture frame.

You’ll often find artwork already framed, and old, dusty frames can really bring down the overall appearance of a piece of art. When you’re shopping for thrift store artwork, try to focus your attention on the art within rather than the entire piece. Visualize the artwork in a new picture frame — you may just find that one-of-a-kind piece you’re looking for.

Cut or hide the damage.

It is difficult to remove stains from artwork; you can try to use document cleaning powder and a cleaning pad on paper items before you resort to drastic measures, but it may not be successful if the stain has set. If an old piece of artwork is irreparably damaged, however, you may be able to cut out the unsightly parts and get a new mat board cut to the print’s new size.

You can even make this a craft: collect a few vintage prints that complement each other, such as botanical prints or illustrations of fauna, and order a mat board with multiple openings. Cut out the desired portions of each print and mount them on backing board where they will show through the various openings.

If you’d prefer not to alter the print, use a piece of blank, uncut mat board and cut out a silhouette from the center — a face, an animal, a shape, or anything that covers the damaged portions of the print —and place this over the print. With this method, you create a new and unusual piece of art.

Create new art.

Instead of trying to fix the art, make it your own. The creative trend of “repurposing” unwanted paintings and prints by painting over them has grown in popularity, as seen by artists David Irvine, whose Re-Directed Art series adds whimsical characters to the background, or French artist Blase, who reimagines classics with modern touches.

If you’re not particularly adept with a paint brush, you can instead stencil letters, geometric designs or flourishes over the artwork to creative motivational or quirky prints.

Embrace its flaws.

When all else fails, learn to embrace the flaws in your thrift store artwork. Faded or torn photos may have just the worn, vintage look your living room needs; that slightly damaged painting has character that can’t be replicated. You can even enhance the “damaged aspect” by giving it a picture frame that’s been distressed to shabby chic perfection.

Don’t try this at home!

If you’re looking to truly restore the artwork rather than repurpose it, you may have some luck with DIY art restoration tips —but be careful, as you may irreparably damage the artwork even further.

Removing tape, for example, is discouraged; the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Collections Care team says that removing tape could tear the image or leave a sticky residue that attracts dirt. Photographs and prints stuck to glass shouldn’t be removed unless you don’t mind the risk of ruining the print completely. If you do want to try, make a copy of the image just in case. There are two methods: scanning the photograph in a flatbed scanner or photographing it through the glass. These options may render varying results due to the thickness of the glazing over the photo. As a third option, a photo restoration specialist can typically assist you in capturing a copy with the highest quality possible.

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