Many of the most well-known art pieces were painted over a hundred years ago. These art pieces are not immune to the ravages of time. Humidity in the environment, exposure to ultraviolet rays from the Sun, and the paint’s degradation over the years cause the piece to lose its original lustre and intent.
Hypothetically, if you were tasked to restore the 500-year old Mona Lisa, how would you go about it? Would you perhaps try to restore it like the infamous Ecce Homo, a mural painting of Jesus restored by an amateur painter with good intentions? This is but one of many botched restorations that have occurred over the years as they were not carried out professionally by specialists. Art conservation is the field of treating these damaged masterpieces to improve their condition by art conservators, using the latest technology.
For a modern-day art conservator, a background in science is essential. It proves very helpful in understanding the make-up of an artwork which ranges from the paint and varnish to the canvas and frame material. Without these considerations, we may end up with more botched restorations! That is why it is very desirable for conservators to have knowledge of chemistry when applying for the role.
Before restoration efforts can begin, the artwork must be inspected and analysed to understand the degree of damage that the painting has suffered over the years. With the help of technology, art conservators can get a detailed understanding of the painting without taking it apart. One such example is X-rays, which lets conservators peer into the painting, appreciating the composition of paints used such as lead or zinc and any other drawings hidden behind the visible layer.
In recent years, a new technique that has been adopted by some conservators is Raman Spectroscopy. It is a highly sensitive technique used to detect and identify tiny amounts of different pigments which are invisible with the naked eye. This is done by shining a laser onto the art piece. The different pigments on it would then be reflected with a slightly shifted wavelength which indicates the type of pigment present. You can imagine this as a tiny ball being shot at the painting, how the ball bounces off the painting would let us know the pigment used!
With the analysis completed, conservators can then begin the painstaking restoration process. The first step is varnish removal on the art piece. Most traditional art pieces have a top layer of varnish on the painting, which typically comes from natural sources such as tree resin. Think of it as a sealing layer that protects the original paint layer from dust, dirt and smoke in the air. However, the varnish would discolour over time, covering the artwork with a yellow tinted layer that obscures the original painting and details that were once visible. Solvents are a great method to remove the varnish while not affecting the paint layer. These solvents are specific to each type of varnish. Some common solvents that you may have heard of would be ethanol, turpentine and isopropyl and are chosen depending on the solubility of the varnish and paint used. The solvent is applied onto small cotton swabs before delicately being used on the painting. This is work that will take hours and likely days, depending on the artwork. Eventually, the originally intended artwork is revealed.
Now that the varnish is removed, the details of the paint layer can be seen in its full glory. The damaged areas of the painting can now be treated by the conservator. You might expect that the paint used should be as accurate to the original composition as possible. However, the original artist’s paints are meant to be permanent. Using a similar paint means no mistakes can be made, and could even damage the painting more by hindering future restoration efforts. Thus, a special type of paint – conservation paint, is used. It can be applied just like normal paint, except that the difference lies in its reversible property, as it can be cleaned off with a simple solvent. This may seem counter-intuitive, but there is a very good reason for this. Art restoration is not something that will only be done once. Eventually, the conservator’s hard work would degrade over the years, and another conservator would have to restore it once again. Such reversible paint would help in making this task much easier.
It can be said that art conservation is a fusion of art and science, staying true to the artist’s vision with the help of science. One without the other would be incomplete. At home, the National Heritage Board is our conservation authority. For an in-depth look, The National Gallery in London has a video series of some of their restoration works including Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Self Portrait’, which goes through the many steps involved in bite-size videos, giving us an insight into how much work goes into restoring a single painting. Restoration is not limited to paintings. Films, photos and even sculptures greatly benefit from it! One great example is the war documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old”, which was remastered using original World War One footage. The 100-year-old film gives us a glimpse into the events of a turbulent past. In essence, restoration allows us to pass on our culture to future generations, ensuring they too can appreciate what we achieved in the past to build upon the future.
Written by Oh Wei Sian
Illustrations by Chua Jia Qi