Painting Explorers: Tobias and the Angel

Paint over time!

When you look at some paintings they might look very faded or cracked. Perhaps the colours seem wrong. Take a look at Tobias and The Angel by Andrea del Verrocchio, because there definitely seems to be something amiss!

The painting is based on a famous old taleAn old blind man sends his son Tobias and his dog on an errand. Tobias meets a stranger on the way who helps him out when he gets attacked by a fish and even helps him find a wife. And if that wasn’t enough, on his way home the stranger helps Tobias cure his father’s blindness. But how is this all possible? Well, the stranger is really the angel Raphael!

The picture shows Tobias and Raphael, with Tobias’s dog at his feet, but the little dog seems to be see-through! He wasn’t meant to be transparent but over the centuries the paint used has faded. It is over 500 years old, after all! The colour underneath has lasted better and so is showing through. It’s a fairly common problem with old paintings.

Just like Tobias’s dog, paint fades on many old picturesEven Sunflowers by Van Gogh is said to have faded. Originally it was much brighter than it is today! Van Gogh said himself “paintings fade like flowers” – that’s why he liked using such bright colours!

Sometimes restorers will try to paint the faded or missing areas back. But unless you know exactly what paint was used, then the new colours may not match. Whilst high power microscopes can help identity the ingredients in the original paint, it isn’t always possible to recreate them exactly. Even simple ingredients will be different. Verrocchio used egg to make his paints but we have no way of getting hold of the same type of egg, and even small differences will affect the finish.

That’s why it’s safer sometimes not to repaint. Old paintings CAN sometimes be cleaned – painstakingly with swabs the size of cotton buds and special cleaning products.  But even still, it’s a bit risky! Before any cleaning is done, restorers need to be absolutely certain that the soap they’re cleaning with is not going to clean off the paint underneath.

Although art restoration here at the gallery is done by experts with the very best technology to help, itll always be a tricky business. Instead of trying to make paintings look nice for viewers, restorers today are more interested in conserving the piece for tomorrow and the next day – making sure it lasts as long as possible. So sometimes you’ll see colours that look strange or parts of the picture which are faded.

It’s all part of the story of each painting! 

Have a think about how colours fade over time!

Have you ever seen colours that have faded?

Lots of colours fade on things over time, especially if you leave things in sunlight! Dyes and pigments work by absorbing certain wavelengths of light and reflecting the rest. Red paint can often degrade faster because it absorbs higher energy (shorter wavelength) light. The more energy that is available, the more likely it is that reactions will happen.

How can you stop paintings from getting damaged by sunlight?

You might see paintings covered up with curtains or in drawers. This is to stop the sunlight damaging it too much, but still allowing people to see it. Make sure you cover it back up, though!

What about my pictures at home?

It’s a good idea to store photos and paintings you have at home away from direct sunlight. Perhaps it’s not a good idea to leave your photos on the windowsill unless you want them to look a nice blue colour as the red fades.

Click on a painting below to explore more!

whistlejacketpromoshepherdspromo venuspromo





 NG_logo_blackPainting Explorers in association with The National Gallery