“You can’t go slowly enough or carefully enough with them,” says Carol Field about the oil paintings that she cleans and restores. Originally from New Jersey, Field studied painting at the Art Students’ League in New York City, beginning there while still in high school. She financed her studies at the League by winning every scholarship that it offered, including its most prestigious: the Edward G. McDowell Traveling Scholarship that allows the recipient to study abroad.
“I went to Europe and wound up spending about a year in Italy, and then a year in France,” says Field. “While I was in Italy, I studied painting materials and learned how to make all my own paints, grounds and varnishes. I visited all the churches and murals and the Sistine Chapel, and really got to observe all the restoration being done there. It was a different approach than just learning about the materials being an artist here in the States.”
Upon her return from Europe, Field concentrated on her own painting career, later working as a scenic artist and an art director. Somewhere in the back of her mind, though, was incubating the idea of taking up art restoration. The signposts appeared along the way, as she first had occasion to work in the home of a master restorer in New York City, and later, through friends, got to visit the restoration studios of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and observe the process of masterpiece restoration there. “I was always very intrigued by it,” she says. “There’s something magical about it.”
It wasn’t until years later, when an antiques dealer asked her if she knew how to clean and restore oil paintings, that the idea of doing art restoration herself took hold. Self-taught, Field uses the knowledge of a lifetime acquired as a painter; 30 years or so of experience with the materials and with the process of painting. “The reason I’m able to do it and do a good job is because I know color so well, and I can look at a painting and kind of read the palette that’s there. I know that it’s developed from not only me being an artist personally, but just having done that work for so long, you spend that much time working with color and the materials.”
Field says that it’s an advantage as a restorer to be a painter herself. “There was a woman interviewed somewhere that I heard early on when I was studying how to do restoration, who said, ‘Artists can’t be restorers because they can’t resist the urge to change something.’ It’s the opposite, really, because I know looking at the work what went into it, and I have a lot of respect for the artist who did it.”
Field works according to the standards of the American Conservation Association. One of its main principles is that the restorer doesn’t change the work in any way. “I always try to work as minimally as possible, to use the least invasive thing, so that I’m not interfering. It might take me longer, but being an artist myself, I feel extremely sensitive to the idea that I don’t want to change anything that someone did before me.”
Sometimes, though, a restorer is called upon to repair damage done in previous restorations. “We didn’t always have these guidelines, and people would use things that would be permanent. I only use conservation colors, and everything I do is removable.”
Field works out of her studio in Stone Ridge, taking on individual projects garnered from art and antique dealers, private collectors and individuals who may not fall into any of those categories, but who may have inherited a family piece or something that was painted by a family member, or just have something that they found at a flea market and want to restore. “I really love working for people like that: a family, who feel comfortable with calling someone who is local and they can have a personal connection with. Often they just don’t know where to go, and people are very afraid of touching something and maybe making it worse.”
Many of the paintings in need of restoration have come off their stretchers, have holes in the canvas or are affected by smoke from a woodstove or coated with layers of nicotine from the years when people used to smoke cigarettes inside. “It’s very rewarding to clean those up,” says Field.
She works on oil paintings only, saying that she’s not set up in her studio to handle watercolors or other works on paper. Recently she has been working on quite a few things that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy: paintings that were submerged in a foot of water.
Prices are set after a consultation, and clients can decide just how much restoration they’re looking for. Sometimes the determination of how far the client wants to go is based on whether it’s a piece that they plan to keep and have an emotional attachment to, or whether it’s an item going up for sale or with investment value. Field says that she’s not qualified to offer financial appraisal of paintings, but can give a general idea and refer them to an expert in appraisal.
The reaction of clients is gratifying. “They can’t believe it sometimes. They’ll say, ‘It’s like a miracle; it’s a whole complete image now.’ It’s very rewarding.”
She thinks of the pieces in her studio awaiting restoration as “her little patients,” and will work on as many as ten or so canvases at a time. “I like working on quite a few at once,” says Field, “because often there are just slight touches that I can do at one time, or one process, and I like to let them rest.”
If she has done a process where she has cleaned off a layer, she’ll put something back on it that sinks into the surface to rejuvenate it. “It’s also about bringing back that surface. That’s ultimately what you’re doing: You’re cleaning off toxins, and built-up layers of dirt, old restorations or varnishes, and you’re refinishing it so it has a brand-new surface and it’s revitalized. It’s almost like cleaning your skin: If you clean it, you want to put something on it to keep it supple.”
She still works on her own painting, too, but enjoys having something else to work on in her studio. “I do love doing this work. It’s interesting, and every single painting is different.”
The work has also brought her a great appreciation for our regional artists, she says. Working on pieces by Hudson River Valley artists has brought home the point that there are many accomplished artists who may not be part of the established canon of names learned in Art History classes, but who made wonderful paintings. “The Woodstock school is really quite important, but not that well-known outside of the area. It’s made me realize as an artist the limitations of some of the basic art history that artists grow up with. We know all the names pertaining to different periods, and you kind of know the stars, but you don’t know all the other people behind the scenes. They get forgotten, and yet they’re very accomplished artists.”
Oil painting restoration, Carol Field, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-7813.