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.


Community Day

Sunday, September 28th was Community Day on campus. The museum held an entertaining event with many different activities. My first role of the night was to assist the Griot Drum Ensemble as they began to set up. Komoyaka King and Amawa Artis, the drummers, are two wonderful people to talk to. They were very enthusiastic and had a great time playing in the museum. King played on a djembe drum during the performance, a large and booming African drum.bilde (2)

The Griot Drum Ensemble played before and after the remarks as well as during, playing a short drum beat to accompany the applause or laughter. Interim Director Carl Schafer; Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora; Ball State students Joshua Vance and Reanna Miller; Executive Director of Motivate Our Minds Inc. Monique Armstrong; Ball Brothers Foundation President Jud Fisher; and Ball State University Board of Trustees president Hollis Hughes all gave their remarks at the bottom of the stairs at the Riverside entrance before cutting the ribbon and being lead by the Griot Drum Ensemble through the museum.

The music performed during the event was beautiful and diverse. Somehow, the acoustics in the galleries resonated well. When visitors moved from the gallery one musician was playing in to the gallery of another, the transition was smooth and one could not hear the other music anymore. Mundo Beat set up in the Sculpture Court and Garret Uyeno in the Japanese gallery. Garret Uyeno’s koto was soft and quiet, while Mundo Beat had multiple instruments, a vocalist, and the large sculpture court to play to.

I was also able to speak with Andre Artis, drummer of Mundo Beat and son of Amawa Artis of the Griot Drum Ensemble. He said he has worked with Arts for Learning, the organization that books the artists featured at Community Day, for 15 years and has been playing drums for 20, almost his whole life. I wish I had had the time to speak with the other two, Stacy Sandoval and Isaac Salazar to learn a bit about them as well.

Deborah Asante, with her beautiful Nigerian wedding dress and voice, spoke to those in the African gallery. She started by talking about how she became so interested in storytelling and that her grandmother would read to her and her siblings. She would, in turn, tell stories to her four younger siblings, even in exchange for doing her chores about the house. She loved the stories of princesses but always felt disappointed when she was told the description of the princesses because she wanted a princess that looked like her. This is when she became interested in African folktales. Her first story was an old folktale from West Africa about a beautiful girl named Abana. My little sister arrived just as this story began and did not leave until it was complete, which is quite impressive for a five year old. Adults and children, like my sister, felt just as emotionally interested in the story and Deborah Asante was while she acted out her stories.

With the approximately 500 people  admiring the museum, the time flew by rather quickly.

The Star Press took wonderful images during the event that can be found here. Newslink Indiana also recorded video during the event, click here.

[All photos from]

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A New Blogger this Summer

Hello, my name is Rochelle Martin, and I am interning at the David Owsley Museum of Art this summer. If you haven’t already guessed, I will be updating the blog during my time here about the events that are happening and the projects that I (and my fellow interns) am working on.

First, a little bit about myself: I am a senior at Ball State University where I am pursuing a B.F.A. in photography and a creative writing minor. I am exploring the Museum of Art as a possible career field, and learning all that I can while I’m here. As for what I’m working on, I am researching and writing for the forthcoming special exhibitions, photographing events and objects for archival purposes, and helping to develop a writing program that can (hopefully) be used by the faculty here at Ball State University.

But enough about me. There has been a lot going on, as many of you are aware. The new galleries will be finished in a few months, the Amidha Buddha has been moved to a new home in the gallery for Chinese and Japanese art, the special exhibitions are starting again, the Riverside entrance has been improved, and an elevator has been added to make the Museum of Art much more accessible. I know, right? That’s a lot. I’m excited to be here to witness all of it.

Like the new galleries, one of the special exhibits that I am working on will be opening in August and will be a solo show by the Danish ceramicist, Anders Ruhwald. It will be a formal exhibition about the perception of form and how the viewer’s perception of form changes by the material in which it is made. Ruhwald’s work is an ongoing investigation of form and is continued in this exhibit through the various materials: clay, glass, and wood.

There is also a collaboration going on as well between Ruhwald and BSU faculty and a small group of graduate and undergraduate students. Michael Hernandez (Glass Facilities Manager), the head gaffer, and Brent Cole (Associate Professor of Glass), the second gaffer, are working with the students to make Ruhwald’s totemic forms in glass. All of these artists are working independently in order to make this collaboration possible. Yet making Ruhwald’s forms in glass is not an easy task.

As an artist, much of Ruhwald’s work is in ceramics, and he has “won critical acclaim for his conceptual work that explores the boundaries of the ceramic medium as an idea and a material.” Currently, he heads the ceramics department and is an Artist-in-Residence at the Cranbrook Academy of Art since 2008. Ruhwald is known internationally for his skills and his work has been exhibited in many art museums around the world. Each of his forms are built and shaped, each carefully textured and glazed by hand. The kind of texture and sharp angles that Ruhwald can achieve with his clay is impossible when blowing glass, one of the several discoveries made in the collaboration. These forms are not about one medium being better than another, but they are about the perception of form a viewer has and how it changes when they can see the form repeated (though not quite the same) in clay, glass, and wood before them. Watch for the next post that will include images of the collaboration in progress and how it is coming along.

Safer Drop Off and Pick-Up when Visiting the Museum of Art

A view of the driveway, scheduled to be complete in late April or early May.

As the weather warms and the campus comes to life after a long winter, the David Owsley Museum of Art is also undergoing more revitalization in preparation for the reopening and installation of the new galleries. Much of our textual materials, such as labels and educational resources, are nearing completion and we are now sending them off for production, just in time for installation.

Final selections are being made to ensure that the works of art within the galleries weave a cohesive narrative that represents a specific culture or region with the collection we have.  Our construction contractors have been working hard to build a balanced physical space that is inviting and as spacious as possible. The changes that have occurred over the semester are quite impressive and are indicative of the efforts put forth by all who work and volunteer at the museum.

While many of these changes are internal and can only be seen when viewing the construction space, a recent development in the renovations can be seen from the outside of the museum as you walk or drive down Riverside Ave. A new circle driveway is currently being installed near the museum’s street entrance and is scheduled to be completed within the next month. A component of the museum’s interpretive plan, the new driveway allows for greater access to our visitors with convenient drop off and pick-up.

In a recent interview with Jim Lowe, Director of Engineering and Construction Operations, I discovered that a circle driveway used to exist before the sidewalk was installed. Until 1955, the museum had access to a driveway, but it was replaced soon after. According to Mr. Lowe, the new drive will alleviate the potential traffic jams that occur when cars pull to the side of Riverside to drop off individuals at the museum. The new driveway is particularly important to our school groups and other large groups that visit, as they now have a safe drop-off location for buses and vans.

Stay tuned for more photos and updates on the renovation project.

Renovation Update

As Nicole and I are continuing our work on labels for the new galleries, we have been checking in on construction progress and would like to share some information with you. Many changes have been made since our last update and the new galleries are really taking shape.

One step closer to finishing, light tracks and walls are being installed.
One step closer to finishing, light tracks and walls are being installed.

In the construction zone, walls are going up, the elevator is being installed, and the areas with built-in cases are shaping up. Over the past few weeks, DOMA staff, exhibition design consultant Charles Froom, Nicole, and I have had various meetings to test locations and sizes for thematic labels that will appear in each gallery space. We are all excited to move forward in with the plans, continuing the process of finalizing decisions.

Here is the area where the new elevator will be installed, improving safety and security for moving large works of art.
Here is the area where the new elevator will be installed, improving safety and security for moving large works of art.

One part of the construction process that takes particular finesse is the installation of plaster moldings throughout the new galleries. Not often utilized in construction anymore, finding skilled plasterers who are able to construct the moldings is no easy task. In fact, there are only a few people in the state who have been trained in plaster work and are expert enough for working in historic buildings like the Fine Arts Building.

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Here you can see part of the process of transforming plaster into crown moldings. The plasters first mix up the plaster. Then they apply the wet material to the top of the walls and drag their tool along the corner where the wall and ceiling meet to form the beautiful detail work of the crown molding.

Here is a detail of the moldings, and as you can see they leave the corners until the end.  The plasterers told us corners are the most difficult part and can take all day just to complete a few corners and do them properly.
Here is a detail of the moldings, and as you can see they leave the corners until the end. The plasterers told us corners are the most difficult part and can take all day just to complete a few corners and do them properly.

As progress continues, we look forward to sharing more stories and photographs of the new galleries with you.