Painting conservation and its many layers

By: Cassi Amman

Have you ever wondered how works of art can survive through centuries of existence? Have you ever seen a painting or sculpture in a museum that has been taken down for “conservation”? If you have, that means a conservator deemed the artwork unstable and in need of intervention by hand to restore it.

Conservation by definition:

Conservation is the process of analyzing works of art and taking proper measures to ensure that they endure for more years to come. This process is careful to consider the original intent of the artist and the materials that were used when creating the artwork. In a field working with art of every age, medium, and size, it is natural that conservation has many different divisions in order to address the complexities of a given object. These categories generally fall under paintings, prints, photographs, textiles, and objects. For the purpose of this post, we will focus on paintings.

Conservators working in the field of painting focus their attention on studying the history of the paintings in their care. However, there is more that goes into restoring a painting than just touching up some paint. Here are some basic steps:

  • To begin, the conservator must become well acquainted with the materials and intent of the artwork. With this information, they will know how best to approach restoring the painting.
  • Close examination is the next step. Conservators harness natural light, ultraviolet light, x-radiography, and infrared technology in order to see the under layers of paint and canvas. Doing so, they can better see the artist’s process in addition to any painting that has been added by previous restorative sessions.
  • Before contemporary conservative ethics and processes were established, previous restorative additions were intrusive, unethical in relation to artist intent, and possibly damaging over the long-term life of the painting. Now, with better research in chemical and ethical aspects of paintings, conservators are better able to restore paintings for extended survival.

As Indianapolis Museum of Art’s painting conservator, Linda Witkowski states, “In art conservation, all good things take time.”

  There are many different restorations that a painting can go through:

Conservators look for condition issues such as peeling paint, bubbles on the surface, holes punched in the canvas, old and discolored varnish, excessive crackling, loose frame marks, and many other surface malfunctions that indicate age or structural instability. Now, conservators even look for previous restorations that go against artist intent or museum practice and intervene to bring the piece back to what is was meant to be. One of my favorite restorative processes is the removal of old, dirty varnish in favor of new, clean varnish. This allows the viewer to see the original colors and image the artist had in mind that had been blocked or discolored by old varnish.

Here in the David Owsley Museum of Art:

There is currently four-sided, painted, wooden altar panels being conserved in the West Gallery on the upper floor. If you have visited the museum recently, you have probably seen these panels are noticeably covered with rectangles of Japanese tissue paper. The work is titled, Saint John the Baptist with Saint Lawrence on the reverse; Saint John the Evangelist with Saint Catherine on the reverse, by Marten de Vos and is located near the middle of the West Gallery.

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The paper you see on the paintings is a restorative measure in setting the paint chips back down to the surface of the board it was painted on. When paintings experience a sudden difference in environment, humidity, or other external factors, they can expand and shrink. This movement causes paint to bubble, crackle, or flake. In the case of the de Vos, the paint had started bubbling and flaking. Since conservation is a long process and takes much planning, it is often required to create preventative measures while set times are planned out to restore. Then, painting conservators Michael Ruzga and Linda Witkowski will return to the project and remove the paper in favor of a more long term restoration.

The process entails using a safe, chemically stable substance to adhere the paint back to the panel. The conservators will also look at the varnish to ensure that it is even, clean and matches the other panels. Lastly, sometimes with paintings, conservators will touch up paint with expert color matching skill. However, and the materials used are reversible and can be removed in the future if necessary.

Challenges to conservation:

More pressure comes from societal expectations that a work must remain pristine. This causes conservators to start preserving artworks much sooner than they usually would. For example, conservators must keep in mind if it is ethical to try to maintain a work of ephemeral art that is meant to deteriorate. In a video on contemporary art conservation at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, conservators explained that a piece such as “Fishman,” created in 1969 by Paul Thek, was not created to survive but for the experience of viewing it. The sculpture, created out of latex, has already started falling apart due to the firming nature of latex over time. Conservators question whether it is appropriate to attempt repairing the artwork or whether the experience of viewing it in the moment is more of the objective.

It will be interesting to see how conservators will tackle these new issues in years to come. In the meantime, please stop by DOMA to see how the altar panels evolve. Michael Ruzga and Linda Witkowski will return to work on the panels March 25-March 29, 2017.

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Conserving the Invocation, Variation #3

 

If you had been to the Ball Brothers Foundation gallery recently, you may have noticed that a work of art was missing from its pedestal. That is because Invocation, Variation #3, sculpted by Theodore Roszak in 1952 was temporarily removed from the gallery for conservation. This work of art has been displayed in the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1958 and was once the property of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago before it was purchased by David Owsley.  Aaron Nicholson, a sculptor from Indianapolis, has been working to clean and conserve Invocation after staff discovered corrosion of the metal and flux on the surface of the sculpture earlier this month.

Invocation, Variation #3, 1959 Theodore Roszak American, born Poland (1907-1981) nickel, silver, and steel
Invocation, Variation #3, 1959
Theodore Roszak
American, born Poland (1907-1981)
nickel, silver, and steel

In welding, flux is normally applied to a joint before the metal is soldered to keep oxygen off the surface of the metal and at the time Invocation was made the substance would have been clear and had the appearance of glass.Over time a combination of water and air turned the flux back in to powder, making the surface appear white and obscuring the surface of the metals and the artist’s intended effect.

According to Nicholson, the cleaning was essential because it mitigated further deterioration of the metal by removing the flux. Professors and students from the Department of Chemistry scraped off samples for testing which confirmed that the white substance was flux before any cleaning took place. Since then, Nicholson has been gently removing the excessive corrosion and re-waxing the sculpture to slow down further deterioration using Renaissance wax. He does this by heating the surface of the metal to open the pores and then applying wax to the surface. The process seals the pores so that oxygen will not alter the surface further. Although he is working to clean the sculpture and prevent deterioration, Aaron is not polishing or refinishing the work. “With some art you don’t want to refinish the surface because it can devalue the art. Polishing would take away the age and you want to leave evidence about what time the work is from.” Now that the conservation work has been completed, the next step is to return the sculpture to its rightful place in the Ball Brothers Foundation gallery.