A final varnish layer on a finished painting has been an artistic practice for centuries. Artists often apply a transparent varnish to give saturation and their desired level of gloss to the painting, as well as to provide a protective coating. Until the 20th century, natural resins such as dammar and mastic were usually used. Over time these varnishes can become discoloured as the resin degrades, eventually causing a yellow to brown colour shift to the artwork. Whites look a dirty yellow, while blue skies are transformed to a stormy green.
After research and discussion with curators, a conservator may choose to remove a discoloured varnish if the removal can be done safely without risk to the underlying paint layers. This was the case with our recent acquisition Heron’s home by Queensland colonial artist and taxidermist Anthony Alder. Dating from 1895, the painting depicts two meticulously rendered Nankeen night herons in a riverine landscape, but the deteriorated varnish was giving it a strong yellow cast overall.
Watch as I remove the varnish layer using cotton swabs and a carefully-tailored solvent blend, revealing the artist’s original colours, and restoring the full tonal range and sharpness of image.
Do you want to deepen your knowledge of modern and contemporary painters’ techniques?
Do you want to know what Arthur Boyd, Ian Fairweather, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Sidney Nolan, Manuel Ocampo, Nam Jun Paik and DeWain Valentine have in common?
Then join us at GOMA on 10-11 December 2012! We will be hosting The Meaning of Materials in Modern and Contemporary Art; a symposium focusing on the nitty-gritty of 20th century artists’ materials. This is a rare opportunity to hear local and international art experts tell the inner stories of 20th century masterpieces, and reveal how they have been shaped by the times in which they were created.
Receiving and unpacking new acquisitions can be an exciting but also nervous moment for a Gallery conservator.
This is the first opportunity to catch a glimpse of the artwork you have heard so much about from your colleagues, but you are also well aware of the risks involved with transporting artworks, and this is the moment where any misfortunes that have occurred along the way will be revealed. This was the case with a new addition to the Asian art collection, a 19th century Nepalese scroll painting, when it arrived at the Gallery. We cautiously unwrapped the framed artwork only to discover that its mounting system had failed en route. Fortunately it suffered no permanent damage, however, required some conservation work before it could be displayed in its new surroundings.
What went wrong with the mounting system? When I opened the frame I discovered the scroll had been stuck down directly to a board using both silicon adhesive and double-sided sticky tape. The board’s paper covering had ripped with the weight of the scroll, leaving both adhesive and paper residues attached to the back of the artwork. The adhesives remained firmly attached to the back of the artwork and didn’t want to release their grip.
All residues of these non-archival adhesives needed to be removed before they could leave lasting stains on the artwork. The artwork had to be turned face-down in order to do this, so any loose paint fragments on the front needed to be secured first. Although it is in very good condition considering its age, there are some cracks and small areas of missing paint along the edges, with some loose paint fragments in these areas.
I tested different adhesives to determine what would best hold the fragments in place, and not cause staining to the surface. Eventually I chose methylcellulose, which is a polymeric substance widely used in the food and cosmetics industries as a thickener and emulsifier. Conservators sometimes use it as a mild adhesive, as it is easily reversible in water and has good ageing properties. In this case it was strong enough in a low concentration to hold down these tiny flakes but viscous enough not to flow into the surrounding area and cause staining. I applied it with a fine brush into areas of loose paint, then weighted and left the areas to dry.
Once the loose paint fragments had been secured at the front, the artwork could be safely turned over, and the adhesive-removal could begin on the back. This was a painstakingly slow process using various surgical tools (such as fine tweezers and a micro spatula) to pry the adhesive residues away from the artwork without leaving a mark.
Some help came from solvent vapours, which when carefully applied using a mini vapour-chamber softened the double-sided sticky tape. Solvent-soaked cotton wool is held securely in the top of a glass chamber. This is then placed over the residual sticky-tape for 2-3 minutes. The solvent vapours don’t have enough time to cause any damage to the artwork but soften the sticky-tape just enough to help remove it.
With the removal of one mounting system a superior solution had to be devised. The artwork was originally designed to hang by its top bamboo rod, but this would place the strain of the artwork’s weight on the top seam holding the rod. Although the seam appears strong enough to take the strain at the moment, over time gradual weakening and deterioration is likely. Instead I added a new hanging system to the back of the artwork. This comprises a new ‘hinge’ of fabric made from stable, inert materials and adhered to the back of the artwork near the top edge with a reversible heat-set adhesive.
I attached the other end of the hinge to a backing board, so now the artwork hangs suspended from this hinge, distributing the weight more evenly through the cotton support. The bamboo rods have been secured against movement by tying their ends down to the backing board. Finally the artwork and backing board have been enclosed in a protective perspex case for display.
Welcome to another behind the scenes glimpse of how an exhibition like ‘Matisse: Drawing Life’ is brought together. You may not see the conservation section at work during your visit to the Gallery, but we’re always there looking out for the wellbeing of the art works.
For an exhibition like ‘Matisse: Drawing Life’ our practical input began once the crates were ready to be relieved of their precious cargo (aside from all the months of planning of course). Most of the art works for an international exhibition like this travel with couriers from the lending collections and as the works are taken out of the crates the couriers, usually specialist conservators themselves, and our conservation staff need to check their condition. This is to make sure that they haven’t sustained any damage en route, are in a good and stable condition and are ready to hang on the wall.
It is an exciting moment being the first on hand to see these treasures when they are revealed, and then having the chance to examine them so closely, for ‘Matisse’ 292 works have come from international destinations.
Sometimes works of art on paper are sent out unframed and, therefore, require framing at their destination. For this exhibition, unframed works were attached to window mounts using Japanese tissue hinges and a reversible adhesive. Next, the mounted art works were fitted into standard museum frames to be ready for installation.
At the end of the exhibition’s time here in Brisbane this whole procedure will be repeated to ensure that the works are still in a good, stable condition and are ready for the rigours of travel. In the meantime, conservation keeps a watchful eye over them while they are on display, making sure that they continue in the best condition possible for all to enjoy.
‘Matisse: Drawing Life’ is the most comprehensive exhibition of Henri Matisse’s prints and drawings ever mounted and is only on view at GOMA until Sunday 4 March. Presented in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the exhibition has been curated exclusively for GOMA. If you can’t get to the exhibition, the Gallery has produced an accompanying publication so at least you don’t miss out on seeing his drawings.