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Paintings conservation. Photo: Emilie Froment.

Paintings conservation in perspective

For centuries, paintings have enjoyed a high value from both a financial and art-historical perspective. This has allowed paintings conservation to be one of the first conservation-restoration disciplines to ascend to an academic level. The significant academic research already carried out in the field of paintings conservation puts it ahead compared to some other specialisms. Nowadays, paintings conservator-restorers can rely on an extensive body of knowledge of artists’ techniques, the degradation of paintings and conservation materials and the likely consequences of certain conservation treatments. This research is vital for the academically trained paintings conservator-restorer since the multi-layer, multi-component structure of paintings makes them complex objects and each conservation decision affects the individual materials and their combinations in different ways.

Paintings conservation: The full treatment

The conservation issues that the students may encounter after graduation are diverse and each painting gives rise to different complications. For the proper development of their knowledge and skills, it is crucial for students to carry out the full treatment of a painting.

Paintings are extensively documented and photographed before students begin treatment. The theory regarding treatments is presented in workshops combining theoretical and practical components. These workshops focus on the treatment phase in general. The physical condition of the painting as well as the previous treatment history and art historical context of the painting are mapped out. In addition, the painting is not simply regarded as an isolated object: its spatial and historical contexts (e.g. whether it is part of an ensemble, its particular location) also play an important role.

The treatment then begins with removing surface dirt and possibly consolidating loose paint. Later other treatment stages are carried out, such as the removal of varnish and old retouches, over-painting and fillings, etc. While learning and working, students gain more experience, develop their manual dexterity and learn to use research techniques such as polarised microscopy and wet-chemical tests to support treatment decisions.