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The chemical extraction unit shown attached to the too cart with it's adjustable tube arm pointed towards the easel.

Flowers | 9.apr.2013

Setting up a painting conservation studio

After nearly 3 years of conservation work, numerous extraordinary flower paintings have been repaired and hung for the exhibition Flowers and World Views. The show looks stunning!

With this complete the painting conservators had one last task, to create a fully functional painting conservation studio in the middle of the exhibition. This open studio will be used to conserve the final three flower paintings in public, giving visitors a behind the scenes view of the conservation process. This process requires very specialized equipment and tools.Overall image of the open studio with the light, easel, chemical extraction system and tool cart labelled.

An adjustable easel

First you need an easel, a sturdy support to hold the painting upright during treatment. In painting conservation we tend to use a robust easel that is adjustable. We want the easel to be able to hold a variety of size and weight paintings and be able to move up and down as needed during treatment.

Good quality lights

Next we need a good quality light. Full spectrum and fibre optic lamps are very important tools for conservators. We use light to allow us to view the paintings under the best and clearest conditions possible, examining the work from all angles to assess its overall condition. When treating a painting, proper lighting allows us to work on a very small scale. Most importantly, when we are inpainting losses and damage it is important to have lighting that is similar to the lighting the painting will be viewed in when displayed. Proper lighting is integral to applying inpainting colours that match the original surrounding paint very closely.

A tool cart

Once we have our easel and lights we need a cart to hold our tools and supplies. Having a cart like this allows us to have everything we need right at our fingertips. Of course the tools and supplies on the cart vary depending on the task at hand. In this case, the cart has been prepared for surface cleaning.This is the process of very slowly and very carefully removing dirt, grime, aged varnish layers and discoloured overpaint from the surface of a painting.

Surface cleaning is done to improve the colour relationships and balance of the artwork, returning it to a state that more closely resembles the artist’s intent. The process involves the application of cleaning solutions to the painting using cotton swabs. Since we make our own cotton swabs by hand we need several wooden swab sticks and a glass jar of cotton. We make the swabs because it allows us to use any size or shape swab we need. Once the cotton swab is used and dirty it goes into the swab disposal container with the yellow lid.

Safety equipment

Often, the cleaning solutions needed to break down aged varnish and overpaint are made up of chemicals which are toxic to humans. We take safety very seriously in the conservation studio. To protect ourselves we use glass containers with sealed lids, we wear protective gloves and we use chemical extraction systems to take up the toxic fumes and prevent us from breathing them.

You can see the long bendable tube of the extraction system attached to the side of the cart. We move this tube to the area we are working and it sucks up the toxic fumes as we apply the chemical cleaning solutions to the surface of the painting. In case of an accident or a spill, we also keep a first aid kit, extra gloves, eyewash and absorbent cat litter in the open studio.

Magnification

Sometimes there is fluff, hair, fly specks or other foreign materials that have become stuck to the surface of the painting. To remove them we use soft brushes and small tools such as tweezers or dental picks. To ensure that we only remove the foreign material, and do not damage the paint surface, we use magnification when doing this.

On the cart next to the tweezers is an Optivisor, which is a set of lenses that allows us to see at 5X magnification. If we need higher magnification, and we often do, we use a microscope attached to an adjustable arm. The microscope is a very useful tool for a paintings conservator. It allows us to examine the structure and condition of the paint layers very closely and it also allows us to very carefully observe and record how conservation treatment is affecting the painting.

Painting conservator Meaghan Monaghan shown observing a painting using a microscope with an adjustable arm.

Tools and supplies

There are some other supplies you will see in painting conservation open studio as we work over the next several months:

  • Various sized brushes, from tiny inpainting and consolidation brushes to large varnishing brushes
  • Scissors for cutting conservation materials to size
  • Rulers for measuring
  • Various sized boards for supporting the painting from the back during treatment
  • A palette with conservation quality paints for inpainting
  • Art historical reference books
  • Various sized weights
  • Small hammers
  • Canvas pliers

Glossary (selected terms from MoMA.org)

Cleaning – process of removing dirt and/or discolored varnish from the painting surface. Cleaning is an irreversible treatment and one of the most demanding tasks of painting conservation.

Inpainting/Retouching – the work done by a restorer to replace areas of loss or damage in a painting. Contemporary conservation ethics dictate that retouching or inpainting must be confined to the specific area of loss and materials used must be reversible.

Light (Raking) – the placement of a light source to one side of the painting at a low angle to the surface, so that the light glances across the painting. This examination reveals surface distortions, such as raised paint or undulations in the canvas.

Varnisha coating applied to the surface of painting.

Do you have a question or comment about the conservation tools and supplies discussed here? Please feel free to pose your questions in Danish or English on our twitter page @smkconservators and use #openstudio or on our website

Meaghan K. Monaghan, Samuel H. Kress Paintings Conservation Fellow

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Updated: 7.jul.2014
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