his is the first of several articles aboutpaintings, although each will beinterspersed among articles about art onpaper, sculpture and other objects,particularly outdoor sculpture.Most people in the art world refer to paintingsas two-dimensional objects. For the conservator, theyare as three-dimensional as any other object for thereason that they are composed of layers, beginningwith the support (generally the stretcher, strainer,wood, or metal support, or artist’s board of somevariety); a secondary support (usually canvas or otherfabric); the ground layer (if there is one); the paintlayer, singular or multiple; and often a surfacecoating (varnish, etc.). Artists, being artists – andwishing to confuse those of us in the mortal world –will add or delete an infinite variety of materials andobjects to paintings, such as Julien Schnabel’scrockery. Each poses diverse and sometimes uniquechallenges for conservators, because each can developits own particular problems and issues. As an example,Schnabel’s crockery keeps falling off his paintings,so he keeps space in a New York storage facilitywhere he reattaches them. So much is writtenelsewhere about materials and structure of paintingsthat we will move to other arenas. However, thecondition and integrity of each of these materialsand layers is critical to the painting’s health.Ignoring or prolonging the restoration of any ofthem can lead to massive damage.Conservators and others in the art world use theterms traditional and contemporary, but toconservators, these are neither art periods nor datedriven. Generally, we refer to them categorically:traditional implies the artist used traditionalpainting techniques, some of which date to thefourteenth century and are still in common use;contemporary indicates the artist used techniquesand materials not found in traditional paintingconstruction. Although there are many specificexceptions to the forgoing, a new universe oftwentieth century materials is available and artistsuse them innovatively, with abandon, and in freshways. Therefore, many of today’s most highly soughtafter contemporary artists are actually traditionalistsin techniques and material. While experimentationwith new technologies and materials is exciting, itcannot be forgotten that most have not beensubjected to the sheer physical process of aging,and we are finding many are irrecoverably failing.Contrary to popular belief, there is not an answer forevery problem. As a friend once said, “Twentiethcentury art may well be known by what little is left.”Nevertheless, whether traditional orcontemporary, damage in paintings stems fromsources that are tedious in technical description,but are usually evident when inspecting for damage. An excellent, highly illustrated guide to types ofdamage and their conservation and restoration is atwww.fine-artsconservancy.com.Collectors are ideally situated to be the primaryobserver of emerging problems. The best way toinspect paintings is to stand to one side or crouchdown underneath with light reflecting off its surface.Move around so you see the entire surface inreflected light. Raised paint, cracks and blemisheswill show clearly. Warning signals to be alert for are:
DEFECTS IN THE PLANE, WARPING ORTORQUE:
The primary support (stretcher, etc.) candistort or become deformed. This is a frequentproblem in Florida and coastal areas, such as theHamptons, with their high humidity. New stretcherdesign combining aluminum supports under thetraditional wood stretcher have largely eliminatedthis when the former stretcher is replaced.
ABRASIONS, TEARS AND PUNCTURES:
Whileabrasions rarely threaten a painting’s structure, inextreme cases abrasions allow oxidation of thelower layers, leading to peeling and flaking. Onefinds tears and punctures in paintings, particularlycanvas, are accompanied by distortions frompressure released by the tear itself or the instrumentof the tear. There is usually associated damage andlosses in the overlying layers above a damagedsupport (canvas, etc.).
FLAKING, CLEAVAGE, GROUND AND PAINTLOSSES:
Cleavage and flaking most often resultfrom a poor or deteriorating bond between layers ofa painting, called interlayer delamination. Groundand/or paint losses frequently have their origin incleavage and flaking. Although flaking and cleavagemost often result from a chemical or physicaldeterioration, they are also common in impact damage.
Occasionally foreign materialsare deposited upon a painting’s surface. Theseaccretions can result from any number of materials,such as splashed drinks, ink or dirt and grime.
by Gordon A. Lewis, Jr.
CARING FOR PAINTINGS
PAINTINGS: A COMPLETE GUIDE FOR CONSERVATION,DISPLAY & RESTORATION PART I: DAMAGE & RESTORATION
Paintings lab - conserving and restoring an Austrian old master painting with the electronic imaging microscope