Paintings on Canvas Q&A with Art Conservator Amanda Gray

Anyone who owns works of art will invariably come across one that might need restoration. It could be a tear or stain on the canvas, surface dirt, or flaking of the paint itself, which detracts from the artist’s original intention. So where do we go to find a professional in our area, and to ensure that the restoration work is done with care and integrity? Rogues’ Hollow Antiques turned to Amanda Gray, a leading Art Conservator for answers to some of our questions.

About Amanda Gray

Amanda was trained in the Masters of Art Conservation Programme at Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario), with specialties in the conservation of oil paintings and works of art on paper. Her first internship involved the conservation of an important collection (The Robertson Collection) of Inuit prints for the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. Over her more than thirty year career Amanda has worked with several public and private clients, including: the Canadian Conservation Institute, The National Archives of Canada, and The Ontario Heritage Foundation, to name a few. She has also taught in the Masters of Art Conservation Programme and for the Department of Art History at Queen’s University. So what better person to turn to for advice on art conservation…

Q What does a conservator do?

A I would first like to point out what a conservator does not do. They do not do authentications or appraisals as this would be a conflict of interest. The primary goal of a conservator is the preservation of cultural property. As custodians, all conservation professionals adhere to a code of ethics, and a process that involves looking at the work, preparing a condition report, treatment proposal and determining a budget. Restoration work is usually done in stages which might, for example, involve stabilization, removing surface dirt, testing, and then discussing with the client the best method of treatment. It is always an individual process, based on a combination of careful adjustments and discussions with the owner or curator.

Q What qualifications and experience does a conservator need?

A In my case, I had an undergraduate degree in art history but decided to do a Masters of Art Conservation in order to develop the theoretical, practical and scientific knowledge necessary for this type of multi-disciplinary work. An understanding of organic chemistry is also essential, as well as understanding the creation and production of materials in past and present contexts to ensure their preservation in the future.

Q How do you decide what to remove or clean and what to leave?

A It depends on the client. Cleaning will brighten the painting substantially. But cleaning has an air of controversy around it so we approach it carefully. Many of the early masters used natural resins but these yellow and reduce the vibrancy of the colours of the paintings over time. Historically, people loved the “golden glow” but by the 19th century public galleries in Europe started restoring paintings and began removing the old varnishes. People were outraged at the time and so the discussion continues between curators and collectors on how much to restore and leave.

Q Will you be using a varnish on the painting once it is restored and if so, how will it differ from the varnish you removed?

A It is ultimately the owner’s decision. As conservators we proceed slowly, always keeping in mind that we are not “improving” but “preserving” a work of art. Regarding natural resin varnishes – conservators often choose to use these beautiful varnishes because of the unique saturation and brilliance they impart to the paint layers. The addition of chemical UV light stabilizers and inhibitors have made the choice of natural resins a safe option. In the 1940’s conservators began looking for alternatives to natural resins. Experimental acrylic varnishes were employed in the 60’s and 70’s because they did not become brittle or yellow and were good for hundreds of years. Today, conservators often manipulate natural varnishes to achieve the desired result. But this is an area of ongoing research…

Q Do you paint the picture and what is inpainting?

A The aim is to trick the eye into not noticing areas of loss and to stabilize the surface from further deterioration. Colour matching the area of loss and adding paint strokes or dots is sometimes used when painting or “inpainting” is required. This method is also known as: Tratteggio (rigatino) where the restorer “integrates the filled defective area with delicate hatching strokes so that the painting can be read again.” The aim is to confine yourself to the area of damage. Methods and techniques also vary culturally. For example, in Japan, conservators of ceramics will fill the area of loss with gold leaf, clearly delineating areas of loss for the viewer. In Italy they employ three different approaches: stabilization, neutral retouching and recreation.

Q What is the hardest repair to make?

A Working on an entire painting. This includes tears to the canvas or damage to the frame. In many cases, the artist selected the frame so restoring the original frame is also a consideration.

Q Are there some things you cannot or will not fix?

A Anyone wanting to restore a work of art quickly and cheaply leads to works being badly restored. This cannot be undone without potentially detrimental consequences. Any works that are stolen will also not be considered.

Q What can we do to protect our art from future damage?

A

  • Have a periodic look at your painting with a flashlight at an oblique angle, or almost parallel to the surface (also known as raking). This accentuates the texture making it easier to spot paint flaking, uneven tension in the canvas or other surface deterioration.
  • Have a look at the back. If the picture wire is old replace it.
  • Look at the wall to ensure that the picture hangers are securely fastened to the wall.
  • If you think the canvas is dirty you can test a corner by taking a Q-tip and a dab of your saliva and running it gently in small circular strokes around the test area. Our saliva contains enzymes as well as potassium and sodium ions – they reduce surface tension in the dirt layers and hence improve the cleaning process. Follow this process with a clean Q-tip and a dab of distilled water.
  • If the painting has a tear take a low tack tape such as masking tape (do not use duct tape) and apply it to the tear on the back of the painting. This will stabilize the tear until a conservator can examine it. The longer a tear is exposed to light, the more brittle and challenging it can be to restore.
  • For more comprehensive information go the this link on the Canadian Conservation Institute website. From here scroll down to “Paintings and Polychrome Sculptures”. There’s a good list of notes with information about the preventative measures one can take with paintings.

Q Why should someone hire a professional conservator?

A Conservators are temporary custodians of art and are trained to respect the artist’s original intention. They intervene as little as possible. I have seen people use day old bread, raw onions and even Windex to clean paintings. Bread and onions leave residue behind and harsh ammonia’s from cleansers can damage a painting. I’d rather see benign neglect than see work that has done harm to a painting and which is difficult to undo.

Q Are there any copyright issues collectors should consider when conserving a work of art?

A Copyright of modern and contemporary art is an important consideration for collectors, curators and conservators alike. Rights to a modern or contemporary work (after approximately the 1980’s) remain with the artist. This means that the owner and conservator must use due diligence by contacting the artist to secure his/her approval for any proposed modifications to the original work. The Snow v Eaton trial of artist copyright is a case in point.

Snow v Eaton Centre Ltd Case: Michael Snow was commissioned to do a sculpture called “Flight Stop” consisting of a number of Canada Geese in flight in the atrium of the Toronto Eaton Centre. During the Christmas season of 1981 the Eaton Centre placed red ribbons around the necks of the geese. Snow brought an action against the Centre to have the ribbons removed. He argued that the ribbons offended the integrity of, and distorted, his work. The judge agreed with Snow. Subsequent to this case, The Copyright Act of Canada has also been amended so that any modifications to a painting, sculpture or engraving is deemed to prejudice the author (Source: Wikipedia, Snow v Eaton Centre Ltd).

Q Is there anything a collector can do to conserve their collection?

A

  • Care should be taken when hanging paintings over a fireplace. The smoke from a fireplace can indeed be harmful and in addition the heat generated will have the effect of raising the temperature and lowering the relative humidity at the surface of the painting and this can cause excessive drying and cracking of the paint layers.
  • Any framing around artwork should use acid-free papers, mounts and glues to prevent visible aging.
  • Keep works of art away from direct sunlight or use curtains and blinds.
  • Use caution when placing works of art in the dining room or kitchen where there is exposure to food and grease.

Q Where do I go to get my artwork valued by an expert? Is there anyone in Ontario?

A Go to the International Society of Appraisers Canadian Chapter. It has a database enabling you to do a search by specialty and by name. In Ontario you can contact Kamille Parkinson for appraisals and authentications.

Q Where do I go to find a qualified conservator in my area?

A Go to the Canadian Association of Professional Conservators (CAPC). On the home page is a “Find a Conservator” search function sorted by name, specialty, object. Enter your city or postal code to find a certified conservator near you.

Q What books do you recommend on the conservation of art?

A

  • The Restoration of Paintings by Knut Nicholas published by Konemann, 1999
  • Conservation of Paintings by David Bomford published by National Publications London (The Pocket Guides Series), 1997

Rogues’ Hollow Antiques would like to thank Amanda Gray for generously sharing her knowledge and expertise with our readers. Stay tuned for future blog posts about conserving artifacts and works on paper.

Sign up for updates
Posted on Leave a comment