Advances in Conservation

Dec 05, 2016

By Gordon Lewis, Senior Vice President and Director of The Fine Arts Conservancy.

PHOTO: Gerhard Richter, oil on canvas

Over the past decade or so there have been tremendous changes in paper, paintings and objects treatment. All of the disciplines have benefitted from new instruments: to mention just two, electronic imaging microscopes which enlarge the work to 240 times actual size allow us to work at a level of detail and precision which was impossible before; specialized cameras which photograph only in infra-red and ultraviolet, among other sophisticated equipment.

Within the discipline of paper conservation, there is now less treatment than was executed before. For example, the development of gels into which can be introduced various chemicals to reduce or eliminated unsightly stains allow us to treat only the affected areas instead of subjecting the entire sheet to an aqueous bath. However, baths are still used when the entire sheet has problems, such as an acid attack from framing, if the paper and media can be safely washed.

It is impossible to avoid discussing framing; the majority of damage we see in both paper and paintings is from poor framing techniques. In the late 1980’s (which heralded the introduction of acid – free materials), framing had been performed with acidic paper and paper-based board. Over time in acids from the framing material leached into the art, severely attacking it and occasionally destroying it. The introduction of acid-free materials has revolutionized framing, and we no longer see damage from those materials, although we frequently see damage from framers who place an acid-free window mats on the front of the work, but use highly damaging acidic materials behind the art and often packing tape on the art. Acidic materials and packing tape are less expensive for framers and avoid the labor of properly mounting the work. Many of them think the owner will not notice it for a decade or more, and they are right; few people unframe a framed work.

Painting conservation/restoration has benefitted tremendously from newly developed paints expressly for retouching, and new synthetic varnishes which allow the gloss to be tailored to taste or replicate the artist’s original varnish. Cleaning is potentially the single most dangerous and damaging of any intervention in painting. It is the one process which can remove original paint in the wrong hands, and the one process which cannot be reversed if it goes wrong. Then the only option is to repaint the removed area, if possible. This is one of the reasons an owner should engage a conservator rather than a restorer. The advent of synthetic fabrics used in lining paintings has been a tremendous innovation

Objects conservation covers a huge field in materials, so identifying advances in it is necessarily going to be condensed. However, the development of new materials to use filling losses has greatly enhanced the profession, as has new tools. For example, in some restorations, it is possible to duplicate pieces using a 3D printer. Since object conservation uses paints, the development of new paints has had an impact, as have new adhesives.

In all restorations, the key concept is “reversibility”. Whenever possible, conservators will use materials which can be removed easily in the event that the same art will need further restoration in the future. Obviously, there are some materials, such as stone, where reversibility is simply not possible.

For more information about The Fine Arts Conservancy, visit their listing on The Clarion List or their website at


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