Using Proper Art Conservation Technique to Conserve Paintings

From paintings to murals, from pottery to sculpture, each form of art requires a specific method of conservation. Conservators have post graduate degrees in a specialty. Specialties in art conservation include ceramics, furniture, sculpture, bronzes, and oil paintings. This article will address what happens when you bring a painting to Van Witt Fine Art Conservation.

When many people hear the word "art" they envision a painting. This expression of creativity has been practiced by humans since we began to paint on the walls of caves thousands of years ago. And much like the art-form, the artwork too, is quite old - much of it in need of repair, restoration, and thorough conservation. There are many reasons why a particular painting may need to be conserved. It may be dirty, cracked or torn. The varnish may be darkened or yellowed. Whatever the reason may be, there are many different methods used in conserving paintings. 

First we will examine the object before suggesting a treatment. Next our conservator will provide you with a written estimate and describe the proposed treatment, expected results, and estimated cost. Should the treatment seriously deviate from the agreed upon proposal you will be contacted with an adjusted proposal. 

Below is an example of an oil painting that has been conserved and restored. 

The actual technical process of the painting's conservation involves several standard steps. The first step is chemical in nature. Pre 1940, most oil paintings were covered in a varnish to protect the paint and to bring a desired sheen to the painting. Over time, this varnish can yellow or crack, especially if the painting has been exposed to a great deal of natural light. If the varnish is yellowed or cracked, it must be removed during conservation. To remove the varnish, a solvent is carefully applied directly to the painting with a cotton swab until all the varnish is soaked up whilst leaving the paint alone. This process can be quite time consuming. Some oil paintings have a rich texture, and removing varnish from the nooks and crevasses of the painting can be difficult. 

A proper examination with trained eyes is an important ingredient in conservation.

A proper examination with trained eyes is an important ingredient in conservation.

If the layer of paint beneath the varnish is also damaged, it too must be restored during the conservation process. To restore the damaged paint, conservators will remove the upper layer of varnish first, and then apply a new layer of varnish before retouching with any new paint. This process is called 'reversible' restoration and is a skill practiced and revered among conservation professionals. In the event of the repainting being incorrect, the process can be reversed back to the fresh layer of varnish and done as many times as needed until the repainting is correct. 

Paintings produced after 1940 will most likely not be coated with a layer of varnish. In the instance that the painting does not need to have varnish removed, the second step in conservation is to remove the build-up of smoke, dust and grime. Painting conservators employ two different methods in leaning up the grime that has built up over time. The first method is to use a cocktail of chemical detergents to meticulously clean the painting. Because the paint used is oil, they can withstand a careful application of a moist, but not wet, layer of detergents. Proper detergent cleaning will be done only once. Cleaning the painting with chemical detergents can do irreversible damage if done with high frequency. Whatever conservation techniques are used, it is important to keep in mind that this process is done best when not rushed. Some paintings take several years to be completely restored and conserved. 

Many oil paintings need to be restored directly on site such as this mural restoration at the Westport Historical Society in Connecticut.

Many oil paintings need to be restored directly on site such as this mural restoration at the Westport Historical Society in Connecticut.