De-mystifying Conservation


Conservation treatments seem mysterious to people unfamiliar with the way conservators work, so here’s some explanation of what conservators really do.


“De-Mystifying Conservation Treatment”


Treatment Step One: Cleaning

After a conservator carries out an examination and takes before photographs, cleaning is often the first step in treating something. Unlike household cleaning, cleaning in conservation isn’t necessarily about dirt it’s about anything on an object that doesn’t belong there. Most of the time that means anything that wasn’t put there by the artist. The first thing to be removed is usually surface dust and grime, along with dirty fingerprints. The second thing, at least for paintings, is usually discolored varnish. The third thing is often old restorations. Different layers to be removed require different methods and materials: sometimes cotton swabs with water, water plus detergent, or an organic solvent like acetone or alcohol are used. Sometimes layers are removed mechanically, with scalpels or other small tools. The removal of dirt and previous restorations can lead to surprises -good or bad. 

A series of images documenting conservation work we’ve done and which illustrate the treatment process follow (clicking on images will enlarge them; to exit, click Close or hit ESC key on keyboard)



Ossip Zadkine, Hand Holding a Bird, 1945
Zadkine, a well-known cubist painter in his day, carved this sculpture during the year that he returned to a newly liberated Paris. The removal of surface grime reveals the crystalline surface of the marble, giving the sculpture back the sparkle that the artist was aiming for, and shows the incised feathers on the bird.


ship in fog

James A. Mitchell, Ship in Fog (before)


James A. Mitchell, Ship in Fog (after)

James A. Mitchell, Ship in Fog (after)


William Merritt Chase, Seaside Flowers

William Merritt Chase, Seaside Flowers
Many things that have been in private homes are covered with smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or fireplaces. Old smoke has an orange tint strong enough to make silver or chrome look like tarnished brass. Old varnishes also turn yellow/orange with time. All these layers obscure the artist’s original colors and negate the illusion of the third dimension in paintings by reducing contrast. (Before & After).



European artist, Portrait of a Man
This painting belonged to a couple who had owned it for many years. It looked dull and grimy, so we started to remove dirt and discolored varnish and found something unexpected. A second set of clothes was appearing under the visible one. After consulting with an expert on historic costume and with the owners, we went ahead and removed a 17th-century costume to reveal a 16th-century painting beneath.



German, 16th Century, Virgin and Child
Medieval painted sculpture was commonly re-painted repeatedly over time. In order to figure out what older layers are intact underneath the more recent ones, thin slivers “cross-sections” – are removed and examined under the microscope. Once this is done, decisions can be made about the possible removal of the outer layers.


Treatment Step Two: Strengthening/Reconstruction

Once extraneous material has been removed, it is time to put what remains back together, strengthen weak structures, or reshape distorted materials. Paper, textiles, and paintings on canvas sometimes need support layers attached to the reverse. Where necessary, missing parts can be restored.



Roberto Matta, Abstract
Paintings hung in private houses are more susceptible to damage than those hanging in museums. Sometimes paintings fall off the wall and hit a lamp; sometimes darts or basketballs are responsible for damage. Probably the worst problems happen when paintings are taken off the wall during renovations or when rooms are being painted, and they are torn as in this example.


Baby Jesus crèche figure

Baby Jesus Wax Creche Figure (Before/After)
This figure, made out of wax, was given to the young woman who owns it by her mother-in-law as part of a long-standing family tradition. It got damaged a short time before Christmas. The owner was extremely relieved that we could fix it in time! A small miracle!



Civil War Flag (Before/After)
Some old silk, especially from the 19th Century, deteriorates very badly, and old silk flags are commonly in shreds. Often, however, all the shreds when put back together turn out to be most of the original.


Treatment Step Three: Restoration 

This treatment phase involves adding back what is missing. It includes varnishing, and filling and inpainting (sometimes called retouching) of losses. Because restoration affects appearance rather than structural integrity, there is substantial leeway in how much of it is carried out.


Fireman’s parade hat

Fireman’s Parade Hat
This hat, from the 1850’s, is made of felt and leather. Aside from dirt and rips around the top edge, a large part of the brim was missing. The missing part was replicated with ragboard painted to match the original, with plastic stripping on the edge. The last step in the treatment was a mount that helped keep the top of the hat in position.



Portrait of a Young Boy
This painting was brought to us by the grandson of the boy in the picture. While we were working on it, he brought the boy, then 92-years old, to look at the painting. He was very pleased to see it in one piece again.


Treatment Step Four: Final Touches 

After the conservation treatment is finished, framing or mounts for objects are important to keep the treated objects safe and protect them against the elements as well as enhancing their appearance.


Charlie McCarthy Dummy

One of the original Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist’s dummies. Charlie was a gift to the current owner’s father, who was a friend of Edgar Bergen. The owner wanted to display it in a Plexiglas box that would fit into a rather small shelf in her house, so we sat him down, posed him on a bench, and propped his mouth open so he could talk.


Keith Edmeir, “Water Lilies”

Keith Edmeir, Water Lilies
The sculpture is very fragile, and, when we got it for treatment, very dirty. We thought that a Plexiglas box would protect it, and hint of water.