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.


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.

Follow DOMA on Twitter and Instagram @domaatbsu.


Diverse representation and the arts

Diversity and inclusivity are issues that art commonly addresses, but they are not as visible in the art world as many people would like. Many times the most famous artists were white and male, while talented female and minority artists were swept under the rug. The David Owsley Museum of Art has a broad collection of artists of various ethnic backgrounds as well as artists that represent diversity in their work. Here are just a few:

Harriet Goodhue Hosmer 


Harriet Goodhue Hosmer, born October 9, 1830 and died February 21, 1908, was a distinguished female sculptor in America and is credited to have “led the flock” of other female sculptors. In her time period of the 19th century, women rarely had careers, especially as sculptors. They were not allowed the same art education as men because of gendered ideas about education. They were not allowed to attend classes and usually stayed home. Because of this, many times female artists created imagery and works depicting home life, usually children or scenery.

Like many of the women of this time, Hosmer was not allowed to attend art classes because working with a live model was not allowed for women. To get past this, she moved to Rome to study art and opened her own studio, paying for private sculpture lessons and taking anatomy classes.


Hosmer’s work Mother and Child is currently on display on the 3rd floor Ball Brother’s Foundation Gallery east wing among other works done by female artists Malvina Hoffman and Bessie Potter Vonnoh.

Thom Shaw


Thom Shaw is an African American artist that died in 2010. His work depicts issues of race, poverty, violence, and community. His wood relief prints, while seemingly pertinent to today’s societal issues, are actually over 25 years old. His images are confrontational and make the viewer really think about the issues they discuss through sharp lines and thought-provoking subject matter. Shaw studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and was one of the first African American artists to exhibit in the Cincinnati Art Museum.

Shaw also mentored minority students, many times inviting them into his studios and doing demonstrations. His work spoke of guns and drugs and police brutality on the black community. He helped start these discussions years before they became the polarizing discussions they are today. His prints show the ugliest parts of society in the most striking and beautiful of ways.


Thom Shaw’s piece Alley Buffet was just taken down from the New Acquisitions show. If you missed it here is a preview. Be sure to keep an eye out for when it makes its next debut.

Robert Gwathmey


Robert Gwathmey was a social realist painter born January 24th, 1903 and died September 21st, 1988 from Richmond, Virginia, and is recognized as the first white American artist to create distinguished depictions of black Americans. His works were very diverse and he tried to demonstrate a more realistic view of rural life in the American south. Gwathmey has always been known as a social activist, believing that art and social issues cannot be separated. He said, “I’m a social being and I don’t see how you can be an artist and be separate. Artists have eyes. You go home. You see things that are almost forgotten. It’s always shocking.”

Gwathmey’s style is very abstract and simple, somewhat reminiscent of Picasso and his cubist style of figures. He uses flat block colors and shapes and symbolic abstraction to convey the meaning of his work. The figures are two-dimensional and are often shown surrounded by stark backgrounds with linear details, giving them a powerful presence.

Gwathmey spent many long years creating art that focused on his political activism. He was very committed to civil rights and workers’ rights. His serigraph print titled Singing and Mending is on display on the third floor in the Ball Brother’s Foundation Gallery and is a powerful part of the museum’s collection.


Our current exhibition, SHIFT challenges perceptions of reality through sculpture and includes a diverse array of artists. Check out the exhibition that runs through May 7.

Follow the museum on Instagram and Twitter @domaatbsu.

Work of the Week: Beauty in Baroque

Katie Ronzio
Public Relations Intern


Maybe it’s the Italian blood that runs through my veins, but I am a sucker for Italian baroque art. Baroque art is characterized by extreme light and dark, exaggerated movement, and religious figures portrayed as the everyday person. The Roman Catholic Church typically commissioned baroque art to persuade viewers to convert back to Catholicism during the later part the Protestant Reformation.

In the heart of our West gallery hangs The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (1625/30) by Massimo Stanzione. Saint Lawrence was a deacon of the Church of Rome and a victim of Emperor Valerian’s persecution of the Christians in the mid 200s CE. Saint Lawrence was believed to be roasted on a gridiron, which Stanizone portrays in this large oil on canvas.

The background is incredibly dark with an intense spotlight on Saint Lawrence. The workoftheweek_martyrdomofsaintlawrence_1movement is exquisite. He is surrounded by busy men preparing to burn him alive, the heavenly baby angel is flying toward him with a black cloth (note that Saint Lawrence is wearing white), and he is reaching up to the sky as he falls back on the gridiron, as if calling out to The Lord himself to take him. He doesn’t look at peace, though. He looks scared, and it’s this emotion that The Church used to persuade Romans to convert back to Catholicism.

It was incredibly taboo at the time to portray a higher being in such a raw way. How could Saint Lawrence be scared to die? Should I be scared to die, too? Thus was the persuasive reasoning used to convert Italians back to Catholicism.

Baroque isn’t just a movement; it’s a portrayal of humanity at its best and worst. It’s light and darkness. It’s good and evil. It’s common but uncommon. It’s artistic proof that the most creative people must see differently, and there’s beauty and truth in that.

For more artistic adventures, visit the David Owsley Museum of Art and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @domaatbsu and like us on Facebook.


Eight Ball State Events Seen Through DOMA Works of Art

Katie Ronzio
Public Relations Intern

Students reading on the Quad. Organizations gearing up for annual events and projects. Faculty rushing to classes with coffee and papers in hand. College life at Ball State University is back in full-swing and the David Owsley Museum of Art is an inspiring and free cultural experience for members of the Ball State community to reenergize and center. DOMA features works of art from all over the world and every subject matter possible, so let us show you eight Ball State events seen through DOMA works of art:

  1. Welcome Week: Migrants, Kurt Seligmann (1955)

Ball State events.JPGWelcome week is bustling with new and returning students. Characterized by disfigured realities and a dreamlike state, Seligmann’s surrealist painting captures the struggle of immigrants coming to the United States from a war torn Europe in the late 1930s. Like immigrants coming to a new country in a tumultuous time, freshman are welcomed to campus for an exciting new chapter of their lives.

  1. Formal Recruitment: Palace Support Columns, Unidentified West African artist from Camroon Grasslands (1900-1950 Ball State events_5.JPGCE)

These support columns are two halves carved from the same tree trunk just as those who
go through formal recruitment find a bond within the sisterhood. Symbolizing family and joy, they exemplify the hundreds of sorority women on campus who build each other up.

  1. Family Weekend: Family Group, Peter Thys (1640-1650)

pieter_thysThe family gears up in “Ball State Mom” and “Ball State Dad” swag for a spirited weekend full of ceremonies, football tailgates, and dinners out. Portraits such as Family Group were often commissioned to show the dignity and social standing of the family, which is similar to families who show Cardinal pride at Ball State.

4. Watermelon Bust: Still Life with Watermelon and Grapes, Raphaelle Peale (1821)Ball State events_8.JPG

Watermelon Bust, hosted by Alpha Chi Omega and Delta Tau Delta, is the largest
Greek philanthropy event of the year. Every fall, university students battle each other in a sea of watermelon guts and rinds to raise money for the American Red Cross and A Better Way, a local shelter for domestic violence victims. This still life by Raphaelle Peale is reference to the celebrated annual event.

  1. Homecoming: The Death of the Dauphin, Louis Jean Francois Lagrenée (1767)

Ball State events_1.JPGLagrenée, appointed a knight by Napoleon I in 1804, was famous for portraying immortality. Homecoming draws those who left the university to return, and The Death of Dauphin demonstrates the closeness of the royal family and how those who leave us are never really gone

  1. Dance Marathon: Attic Red Figure Column, School of Myson (480 BC)

Painted on the vase is Dionysus, the patron of dance, ball-state-events_6
and his followers drinking to celebrate life and death. Dance Marathon participants stand and dance for those who can’t, and celebrate to raise money for an important cause. Thousands of students pay homage to Riley Children’s Hospital just as these figures paid respect to their deities.

  1. Spring Break: Landscape with Psyche Saved from Drowning Herself, Studio of Claude Lorrain (1665-1670)

Ball State events_4.JPGSpring break is a time where students relax, recharge, and renew. In the story of Psyche and Cupid, Psyche betrays Cupid’s trust by attempting to reveal his true identity. Portrayed in the painting, Pysche is rescued by the river. Since Psyche and Cupid are reunited, this painting represents the reunion of heart and mind that all Ball State students experience after a relaxing spring break.

  1. Graduation: Advancing Monuments, Stella Snead (1946)Front (1).jpg

 How fitting to begin and end college with surrealist works of art? Advancing Monuments is “ill-defined without a horizontal line but seemingly limitless.” This painting portrays the power of adventure and the unknown. As new graduates take their next steps into the world it reminds us all that the unknown doesn’t have to be so scary, in fact, it can be quite beautiful.

Follow DOMA on Twitter and Instagram @domaatbsu and like us on Facebook for updates.


Work of the Week: Rest by the Wayside

Emma Rogers
Media Intern

DOMA has several impressionist paintings, but Rest by the Wayside stands out to me for its natural beauty. Although this painting is smaller than some that surround it, the color combinations attract my attention. I’ve seen Chase’s work in other museums, and I’m pleased that this painting is included in our collection.

Rest by the Wayside (Rest by the Roadside), William Merritt Chase, about 1902

The painting, completed by William Merritt Chase in about 1902, exemplifies the artist’s landscape period toward the end of his career. Chase, an Indiana native, studied in Indianapolis, New York and Munich, Germany before returning to the United States in 1878. The artist painted a wide array of subjects including portraits, still-lifes and landscapes, showcasing the breadth of his painting ability. Phillip Kennicott, an art critic at the Washington Post, wrote of Chase that “…his mastery of different styles, different national tendencies gleaned from cosmopolitan exposure to the breadth of Europe’s art scene, can make it seem as if multiple painters are represented.”

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Rest by the Wayside on display

From 1891 to 1902, when this painting was completed, Chase spent his summers in the Shinnecock Hills of New York where he founded the Shinnecock Summer School of Art. He spent time painting the nature around him, producing a series of vast landscapes which often featured a small human subject. The cool blues and greens of the vegetation paired with the hazy sky give the painting a dreamy feel, eventually directing the eye along the horizon to ponder where the dirt path leads. The mysterious human figure makes the viewer wonder why he is sitting alone in the wide landscape.

Frank C. Ball, David Owsley’s grandfather, purchased Rest by the Wayside from Chase’s widow, Alice. The painting has been exhibited across the nation in Seattle and New York City, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984. Rest by the Wayside can be found upstairs in the American gallery, alongside another Chase painting.

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