5 Questions on Art Conservation & Restoration with Wendy Partridge

Apr 13, 2016

Wendy Partridge, a Paintings Conservator at ICA Art Conservation, shares her expertise and experience by answering some frequently asked questions.

When should one consult a conservator and what services can a conservator provide?
Conservators are experts in the long-term preservation of cultural property. Their activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventative care. If you are an individual collector, you might want to consult a conservator about having a piece examined for condition issues and possible conservation treatment. As a paintings conservator, I examine paintings that have structural problems (i.e. lifting paint or torn canvas) and aesthetic issues (i.e. discolored varnish). You might also want to consult a conservator about preventive conservation measures such the proper way to display and store your collection.

An excellent source of information on art conservation is the website of the national professional organization for art conservators, the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC). On the AIC website you will find information on how to choose a conservator, how to find a conservator in your area, and resource guides written by the various AIC specialty groups on how to care for your treasures.

What is the process in having a piece evaluated?
You may begin the process over the phone or via email. Sometimes digital images can be very helpful. However, if a piece requires treatment, the conservator will need to examine it in person. As part of an initial consultation, the conservators will often look at the piece with you and give you some idea of treatment possibilities and cost.

If the piece needs treatment, you would leave it with the conservator. The conservator will spend time looking at the work sometimes with different light sources or low tech tools. As a paintings conservator, in addition to good bright light, I usually use ultraviolet light and magnification in my examinations. Conservators might also perform small tests on the piece to determine, for example, if there is a grime layer or how the canvas responds to humidity. Any information that you have about the history of the piece or the artist often can be very helpful in the assessment. At the end of the examination, the conservator will write a formal condition report, treatment proposal, and cost estimate.

How does one decide on what approach to take when conserving a piece or art?
The treatment approach is determined in consultation with the owner or custodian of the piece. The conservator can present various options and will explain what to expect as the result of a particular treatment. For example, the conservator might strongly urge that lifting paint be secured to prevent losing part of the paint layer. However, depending on the piece, areas of loss might not necessarily need to be filled and inpainted to match the surrounding original.

What will be included in a condition report?
A key element of professional art conservation is written and photographic documentation. The condition report is a record of the construction of a piece and its current condition. It will contain information about the materials and techniques used by the artist. It will also have information concerning what has happened to the piece over time including evidence of damage, modifications, previous repairs, or past restoration.

If conservation treatment is recommended, there will be a written treatment proposal associated with the condition report. The treatment proposal will outline the steps of the treatment. Additionally, if there are risks associated with a treatment, these should be indicated in the report. Finally, any limitations to treatment should be noted. For example, a conservator might be able to repair a tear and significantly improve the appearance of a painting, but he or she might not be able to eliminate all evidence of damage.

After a piece has been conserved, the conservator will write a treatment report, documenting what was done to the piece and what materials were used. Any additional information discovered during the course of treatment will also be recorded in the treatment report.

How should one protect art over time?
There are a number of preventive conservation measures concerning proper display, storage, and handling that will help protect works of art. Information about caring for particular types of objects can be found on the AIC website at the Caring for Your Treasures (i.e. metal objects, books, textiles, photographs, etc).

Proper environmental conditions are a very important factor in contributing to any art work’s longevity. For example, all paintings consists of various components and materials which expand and contract at different rates as temperature and relative humidity fluctuate. Therefore, the best thing you can do for your paintings is to maintain as stable an environment as possible. While slow seasonal environmental changes are usually acceptable, try to avoid large fluctuations within shorts periods of time. It is best to avoid hanging paintings on outside walls or over heat vents or fireplaces.

Wendy Partridge, Paintings Conservator
Wendy Partridge is a Paintings Conservator at ICA Art Conservation in Cleveland. She has a graduate degree in Paintings Conservation with an M.A. in art history from the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. Prior to working for the ICA, she had internships and fellowships at the National Gallery, Washington, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She is a professional associate of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and served for two years as chair of the AIC Paintings Specialty Group. Contact: wpartridge@ica-artconservation.org