Cropping a Finished Painting

Q. Recently, one of my painted canvases was damaged in the upper left corner. To maintain the marketability of the oil painting, I’d like to crop it (which would not detract from the composition), remove the canvas from the stretcher bars and glue it to a rigid support, such as wood or a Masonite panel. What type of adhesive and rigid support would you recommend I use?

A. The process of adhering an original canvas to a secondary support, whether it’s canvas or a solid material, is called “lining.” It’s a complex procedure that may demand specialized equipment (such as a vacuum hot table) and typically involves heat, pressure and sometimes moisture, depending on the glue used. When done correctly, a lining can strengthen a greatly weakened canvas. But if handled improperly, the process can cause shrinking of the canvas, delamination of paint, flattened paint texture, adhesive stains and other such horrors. While cold lining has been developed to address some of these potential pitfalls, this process often involves an adhesive that requires the use of rather unfriendly solvents. I don’t feel comfortable recommending either of these methods to anyone without training.

Another problem with lining to a solid support is that it’s not easily reversed should things go awry. While another canvas can be peeled away from the reverse of a painting, the inflexibility of a board greatly limits safe removal. Right now I’m working on restoring a 19th-century canvas painting that was mounted to a wooden panel. The movement along the grain has imparted a washboard texture to the surface of the canvas, and the lining process trapped an air bubble, creating a bulge in the surface. Neither of these disturbances can be rectified without putting the painting at great risk and so must be accepted for what they are.

So what can you do? For hundreds of years, artists have relied on one particular method of reducing a painting’s size that I strongly recommend: restretching it on a smaller stretcher. While this does pose some risk—namely, some cracking of the paint along the tacking edge—it’s far less invasive to the painting.

When restretching the canvas, try to maintain the original fold-over edge in those areas where the dimensions won’t be altered. In the areas where you do have to fold the paint layer around to the back, go slowly. If the paint layer is very stiff, you can warm it slightly with a hair dryer. This will help make the paint more flexible so it can take on a new configuration. Don’t try to stretch the painting with a lot of force. If you can’t get it taut, just secure the painting to its new stretcher and then apply tension by keying out the stretcher. I don’t recommend canvas pliers; I find they can apply too much force and cause cracks in an already painted image.

As always, I offer this advice with the understanding that you are the creator of this painting. Never take it upon yourself to cut down another artist’s work because you could end up doing more damage to the painting’s marketability. If you’re not comfortable with restretching the painting yourself, seek the help of a conservator. Perhaps the painting isn’t as damaged as you think and, with a little help, you might not need to alter its composition at all.

Hugh Greer, of Wichita, Kansas, has a degree in industrial design. His paintings have won numerous awards, including Best of Show in the Kansas Seven State Watercolor Exhibition 2000 and a Top 100 honor in Arts for the Parks 2001. He has two books: Hugh Greer, Missouri to New Mexico, which was published in 1997 with verse by Cathy Bolon Stephenson, and Acrylic Landscape Painting Techniques (North Light Books, 2002). He is represented by The Wichita Gallery of Fine Art, Wichita, Kansas; The Courtyard Gallery, Lindsborg, Kansas; Wadle Galleries Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico; and American Legacy Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri. Greer would like to thank Ed Pointer for his writing assistance.

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