Oops, Can I Patch a Hole Myself?

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Collector Steve Wynn famously poked a hole in Picasso's Le Reve with his elbow.
Collector Steve Wynn famously poked a hole with his elbow in Picasso’s Le Rêve in 2006. It was repaired and later sold to billionaire hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen.

Sooooo, I was in my studio last week and was moving a large painting from one side of the room to the other. Me being me, I tripped over a drill that was lying on the floor and my canvas went crashing to the ground! Well, not really the ground, but right onto a metal cart. The corner of the cart punctured a huge, horrifying, debilitating, evil, gnarly hole in my canvas. HELP ME. Is there any saving it? I really love this painting. It’s taken me over 6 months to complete, and I’m willing to go above and beyond to repair it!
Butterfingers in Savannah

Dear Butterfingers,
My sincere condolences go out to you. I know these things can be stressful, hell, even traumatic. Months of work bludgeoned in under a second? That’s rough. Let’s talk it out though. There are some things you need to know.
I’ve worked in a painting conservation lab for a few years—albeit doing mostly grunt work like framing and filing. However, on occasion I’ll get assigned a challenging, highly meticulous task in which my detail-obsessed self can run free in its own field of flowers. Anyhow, I’ve seen tears of every shape and size come through the door. One time, a woman brought in a very old family portrait painting that had been stabbed numerous times by her adolescent grandson. We were able to repair the painting beautifully, but not her sunken spirits. It seemed as if she was forever stuck in the warm mud of familial despair. So, if we’re looking on the bright side—which we always are, aren’t we, buttercup?—at  least you’ve only a ripped painting on your hands, and not a potential serial killer who may or may not be torturing squirrels in your basement.
So let’s talk about the fix. You’re not going to like what I’m going to say but I have to say it: don’t patch the hole yourself. I know it’s 2015, and we love a DIY approach, and practically salivate over the latest, greatest Pinterest hack, but this is not a hackable scenario. In the interest of long term preservation, do not patch. Think far into the future. Even though you may feel very sure the world will end long before your canvas starts to react—there is no guarantee. Better safe than sorry.
Here’s what many people in your position would do: cut a canvas patch and use an adhesive of some variety to affix it to the back of the painting, thus bringing the split edges securely back into place. You know … like pants. But here’s the thing: paintings aren’t pants. So you can’t do that. While a glued-on patch might look okay for a little while, eventually, the area will start to bulge. It’ll protrude like a tumor festering underneath the painting’s skin. Quite hideous; and at that point, the paint layer may or may not crack and flake off, causing a far uglier, more damaged surface than the initial rip. Say someone bought the painting for you at a cost that wasn’t exactly small potatoes, they may come at you seeking vengeance; or, they could merely toss your painting in the Garbage-Can-of-the-Future because they don’t want to pay to have it repaired. Which would be an even more tragic ending, now wouldn’t it?
A puncture wound is reparable, but to do it right, it might cost you. If you know of a conservator in your area, seek them out immediately. Get a quote as to what it would cost to fix the wound. Maybe it’s doable for you. If not, the best solution is to use scotch tape on the back—that’s right, good ol’ clear scotch tape. Not masking tape, not duct tape; those have goopy, potentially deleterious adhesives. Scotch tape is relatively innocuous. Stick with that until you can afford a more permanent repair solution. I know it’s not ideal, but it’s better than ruining the painting for all time because you saw someone DIY it on YouTube and it seemed like a good idea.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville, Tennessee. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to renowned paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space, Threesquared. Her writing and art criticism has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow. 

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