Reskilling during the pandemic

One of the ways we have passed time during the lockdown has been to watch YouTube videos on the big screen in our family room. I love watching instructional films from the 1940s and 1950s (John less so.) From videos for young women on how to look pretty and have lots of “pep”, to how to make a tuna rarebit sandwich using your gas oven, to the dangers of being killed by a homosexual (ah, giddy times). And one of my personal favorite sub-genres are old films about office procedures and etiquette. These comport with my officephilia, and love of the golly, gosh, keen vocabulary of the era.

(I can’t mention these vintage films without talking about Our Daily Bread, a two-part look at how commercial bread products were made in England in 1962. It is fascinating on so many levels, and it elevates the whole process to biblical significance. I’ve watched it multiple times. Part I is here, Part II is here.)

We’ve also watched videos about interior design, architecture, and gardening. But then we stumbled across videos showing art restoration. To my mind, the most interesting and entertaining of these are those posted by Baumgartner Restoration in Chicago. They are particularly fascinating because Julian Baumgartner shows an amazing mix of scientific and art history knowledge, artistic talent and fine motor skills, and a not insignificant number of “that’s how they do that” moments. His studio is as meticulously tidy as his work, and he oozes oceans of calm and patience. (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a bit of a crush on him, but that is neither here nor there.)

The video above shows an amazing range of skills Julian employs to restore a painting. The video below, on the other hand, dwells on the satisfying, so, so, satisfying aspects of watching someone clean a really dirty painting.

And it was the cleaning aspect of these videos that really caught my imagination, not only because it is so satisfying to watch, but because it is the one thing that Julian does that I would be capable of doing. I have terrible motor skills and like destroying more than I like creating. Not that cleaning a painting is destroying, but just like I prefer weeding to planting, it’s taking something away to make it better.

And so, with a half dozen Baumgartner videos under my belt, I was compelled to retrieve a painting we had in the basement that I knew was quite dirty. It was a landscape John purchased online a few years ago that shows the area in northern California where he grew up. It helped that our friend Sarah, with her 30-year old art history degree, was watching with us. She said if I was going to try anything, I should use saliva not water. Julian uses various solvents to clean paintings and remove old varnish based on the chemistry of what is on the painting, but for me, not having that knowledge, and believing that the painting I wanted to clean probably didn’t have discolored varnish on it, I decided that spit would be my only solvent.

And, oh my God, it was satisfying. Just Q-tips and saliva. At first I wet the Q-tip in my mouth before swabbing the painting. But when I was about a third of the way finished, I discovered that spitting on the painting and then using swabs on the wet area was much faster and way more effective. (Of course, your results may vary, and I am no expert, so I offer no advice or suggestions for your own paintings. You should rely on expert help before embarking on any such project. And see your dentist twice a year.)

The dirty painting with just a bit of the upper left corner cleaned.
It’s a painting on that canvas board that they gave you in junior high art class, not actual canvas.
Working at the feet of the master.
Turns out the sky was blue.
I left a few bits of sky for the end as a reminder of my progress.
The cleaning completed.
And the dirty painting again for contrast.

I really enjoyed doing this. It was so calming and so satisfying to see my progress. I eventually went around the house looking for paintings that might be dirty. Unfortunately, the others we own barely even have dust on them. It makes me want to buy dirty paintings just so I can clean them.

Maybe Baumgartner could start a fantasy camp for people with no skills who want to clean paintings. Or maybe he could buy and resell paintings of little significance that would benefit from a little saliva. He could package them with swabs and sell them as a kit.

7 thoughts on “Reskilling during the pandemic

  1. akagracie November 27, 2020 / 1:30 pm

    I love this post so much – all of it, from the great ideas for what to watch to (especially) how to clean an old painting. I have a couple of old painted wooden panels from a Japanese school & wonder how different they might look if cleaned. They’re not necessarily valuable, but I wouldn’t want to ruin them. Will do some research now – thanks! Is that a Turner Mr Baumgartner is restoring? Finally, is that Marin county or farther north (I think everything’s Marin; it’s where I grew up & I miss it)


  2. Grier November 27, 2020 / 3:25 pm

    What a timely, if a bit bizarre, post as I’m currently re-reading A Month in the Country by J L Carr. Well done!


  3. Quinn November 27, 2020 / 11:29 pm

    This is perfect! Thank you. I use to sell my spit in college at a dental research facility. $2 a vial, take forever and had to suck regals sour lemon drops to get things rolling.
    So spit painting is right up my alley.
    Like all your posts, the personal the better.
    Like reading brit women (pym,gardam) in countryside stories…so much goes on inside head n behind closed doors. Thank you for this comforting post. Happy new year


  4. james b chester November 28, 2020 / 1:44 pm

    The restored painting certainly looks great. It could be just about anywhere in Northern California, from Santa Barbara north to where the pine trees start to grow.


  5. Joan Kyler December 1, 2020 / 9:05 am

    You might like the show The Repair Shop, on Netflix. A small shop in the country in England is staffed with skilled craftspeople who seem to be able to repair anything. They have a painting restorer who’s pretty amazing. You like England, maybe you could get a post-covid job there!


  6. gina in alabama December 1, 2020 / 5:05 pm

    If we ever get back to the real world, I think you should take this to an Antiques Roadshow local event to discover who painted it. I really like this painting! The colors are so right for Central California! there was quite a regional school going on there in the early/mid 20th century. You could have something quite desirable there, other than its a lovely painting!


  7. ruthiella December 31, 2020 / 1:43 am

    Thanks Thomas for making me laugh out loud at least three times. :D Priceless.


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