his is the first of several articles about paintings, although each will be interspersed among articles about art on paper, sculpture and other objects, particularly outdoor sculpture. Most people in the art world refer to paintings as two-dimensional objects. For the conservator, they are as three-dimensional as any other object for the reason that they are composed of layers, beginning with the support (generally the stretcher, strainer, wood, or metal support, or artist’s board of some variety); a secondary support (usually canvas or other fabric); the ground layer (if there is one); the paint layer, singular or multiple; and often a surface coating (varnish, etc.). Artists, being artists – and wishing to confuse those of us in the mortal world – will add or delete an infinite variety of materials and objects to paintings, such as Julien Schnabel’s crockery. Each poses diverse and sometimes unique challenges for conservators, because each can develop its 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 facility where he reattaches them. So much is written elsewhere about materials and structure of paintings that we will move to other arenas. However, the condition and integrity of each of these materials and layers is critical to the painting’s health. Ignoring or prolonging the restoration of any of them can lead to massive damage. Conservators and others in the art world use the terms traditional and contemporary, but to conservators, these are neither art periods nor date driven. Generally, we refer to them categorically: traditional implies the artist used traditional painting techniques, some of which date to the fourteenth century and are still in common use; contemporary indicates the artist used techniques


by Gordon A. Lewis, Jr.

Paintings lab - conserving and restoring an Austrian old master painting with the electronic imaging microscope and materials not found in traditional painting construction. Although there are many specific exceptions to the forgoing, a new universe of twentieth century materials is available and artists use them innovatively, with abandon, and in fresh ways. Therefore, many of today’s most highly sought after contemporary artists are actually traditionalists in techniques and material. While experimentation with new technologies and materials is exciting, it cannot be forgotten that most have not been subjected to the sheer physical process of aging, and we are finding many are irrecoverably failing. Contrary to popular belief, there is not an answer for every problem. As a friend once said, “Twentieth century art may well be known by what little is left.” Nevertheless, whether traditional or contemporary, damage in paintings stems from sources that are tedious in technical description, but are usually evident when inspecting for damage. An excellent, highly illustrated guide to types of damage and their conservation and restoration is at Collectors are ideally situated to be the primary observer of emerging problems. The best way to inspect paintings is to stand to one side or crouch down underneath with light reflecting off its surface. Move around so you see the entire surface in reflected light. Raised paint, cracks and blemishes will show clearly. Warning signals to be alert for are: DEFECTS IN THE PLANE, WARPING OR TORQUE: The primary support (stretcher, etc.) can distort or become deformed. This is a frequent problem in Florida and coastal areas, such as the Hamptons, with their high humidity. New stretcher design combining aluminum supports under the traditional wood stretcher have largely eliminated this when the former stretcher is replaced. ABRASIONS, TEARS AND PUNCTURES: While abrasions rarely threaten a painting’s structure, in extreme cases abrasions allow oxidation of the lower layers, leading to peeling and flaking. One finds tears and punctures in paintings, particularly canvas, are accompanied by distortions from pressure released by the tear itself or the instrument of the tear. There is usually associated damage and losses in the overlying layers above a damaged support (canvas, etc.). FLAKING, CLEAVAGE, GROUND AND PAINT LOSSES: Cleavage and flaking most often result from a poor or deteriorating bond between layers of a painting, called interlayer delamination. Ground and/or paint losses frequently have their origin in cleavage and flaking. Although flaking and cleavage most often result from a chemical or physical deterioration, they are also common in impact damage. ACCRETIONS: Occasionally foreign materials are deposited upon a painting’s surface. These accretions can result from any number of materials, such as splashed drinks, ink or dirt and grime.

VARNISH DISCOLORATIONS AND BLANCHING: Whether natural or synthetic, varnishes discolor with age. Natural resins darken from clear into yellow and then dark brown, while synthetics become gray. Any change in varnish tonality changes and can obscure the original intention of the artist’s visualization of the picture. This is first noticeable in natural resins, when whites begin to take on a somewhat yellow cast; and in synthetics when the original colors become less vibrant. Blanching, on the other hand, is characterized with the varnish becoming a hazy or opaque white from excessive humidity. Cleaning is unquestionably the most frequent treatment performed, and has more potential for damage than any other procedure in painting conservation. This is the one procedure which once performed cannot be reversed and done again. Clients often come to us saying their art “only needs cleaning,” to which we must reply, “Yes, and I only need open heart surgery.” The implication is that unless their conservator has consummate skill, technical knowledge and experience, the original paint can be lost. The damage can be enormous; the loss of original paint can never be recovered. This loss, when a painting has significance, creates a substantial loss of value. For all of that, in the hands of an expert conservator cleaning can provide breath-taking results. A picture of beauty and vibrant color emerges under the accomplished hand of the conservator. It used to be, in the not so distant past, that cleaning was performed with a variety of solvents. In many cases, we found them to be too aggressive, and today we have a series of designed gels which gently remove aged or problem varnishes without disturbing delicate glazes and scumbles the artist used to achieve subtle tonal qualities. USING A CONSERVATOR: We discussed what makes a good conservator, the difference between restorers and conservators, and the differences between conservators at various levels of accomplishment in the article, Why a Conservator??? archived at Whenever you notice anything that seems out of the ordinary, no matter how minute, such as the preceding damages, then it is time to consult a conservator. It is a good idea to have your collection reviewed annually to ensure that conditions are addressed as they emerge rather than when they have become major problems. While a few issues are purely cosmetic and do not threaten the painting (such as darkening varnish), many situations which seem static are, in fact, progressively attacking the painting, often so slowly that their progress is not evident. Most importantly, any treatment should consist of the most minimal intervention possible given the nature of the painting’s damage. Another foundation of conservation is the principle of “reversibility.” Any treatment should be able to be reversed. The singular exception is cleaning. THE CONSERVATION PROCESS: Conservation begins with a thorough and competent


AFTER CONSERVATION AND RESTORATION examination. It is best to examine paintings under laboratory conditions, with laboratory grade equipment, however, there are various reasons (such as size) that the process may begin at the owner’s designated location. Conservation needs and next steps can be determined at that time. Sometimes the situation is straightforward enough that the conservator can perform diagnostics on the spot, giving a treatment proposal and estimate without further examination. Most conservators charge a fee for examinations, as do doctors for examinations. The needs of each picture dictate the conservator’s approach and the process required. Each of the problems listed above has its own set of procedures. In our practice, we evaluate roughly forty issues as we perform an assessment. All begin with a pre-intervention diagnostic analysis, which, in turn, directs our approach. Other diagnostics required may include ultraviolet specular reflective light and/or using infrared or monochromatic sodium reflective light. Next is the microscopic examination, which begins under low-power microscopes. This may lead into specialized microscopic techniques, including our electronic imaging microscope, infrared imaging, polarized microscopy, or thin section microscopy. In complex situations, we may opt for advanced technical analysis, such as carbon dating the canvas to determine its age, or organic and inorganic chemical analysis of the ground and paint layers and the binding media in which the paint pigments reside. Using multifaceted analysis of glazes and varnishes, we can determine how to remove problem varnishes while retaining the artist’s glazes. On occasion, we will employ x-rays or other procedures designed to enhance our knowledge of the painting and its structure. After analysis, the conservator will design a treatment protocol for the picture. Most treatment procedures are generously illustrated at, or call 561-684-6133. ◆

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