Painting Conservation Studio

Lunder Paintings Studio

In this studio conservators restore the surface of paintings to a condition that most closely resembles an earlier unaltered or undamaged state. The two most common procedures that take place here are cleaning and inpainting. During cleaning, conservators carefully remove layers of accumulated grime; darkened varnish; and old, discolored retouching from the surface of paintings. To restore areas of lost paint, conservators fill the areas of loss with gesso, and inpaint them to match surrounding areas of original paint. They use easily reversible materials and take great care not to cover any of the original paint that had been applied by the artist.

Conserving a George Catlin Painting

Date
  • NARRATOR: George Catlin’s Indian Gallery contains more than 400 portraits and landscapes depicting Native Americans in the 1830s and 1840s. A series of conservators treated these paintings before the museum had its own conservation department. Early treatments didn’t hold up over time. Stefano Scafetta is a senior conservator at a Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    STEFANO SCAFETTA: Conservators need to respect the original intent of the work of art. We need to make sure that the painting itself is dictating what I should do to it.

    NARRATOR: When this portrait of a young Menominee boy is put under ultraviolet light. Layers of paint applied years ago in a previous treatment show up as darkened areas on the face and background. These repainted areas are carefully removed to eliminate discolored paint. Fortunately, the discolored paint can be removed safely without damaging the original. Also, some of the treatments covered more of Catlin’s original paint than necessary. Once the actual damage to the original painting is revealed conservators can move to the next step: in-painting.

    STEFANO SCAFETTA: In the profession of conservation, the philosophy is the idea of reversibility, which means that everything that you do in your treatments you should be able to undo.

    NARRATOR: Using materials that can easily be removed in the future, the areas of loss are carefully filled. Filling in only what is absolutely necessary requires a technical proficiency developed with years of practice.

    STEFANO SCAFETTA: The biggest challenge is to in-paint, which is retouching very judiciously on the areas of losses and damage, matching the surrounding colors. That’s the part I enjoy the most.

    NARRATOR: With the expert skill and patience, the painting is finished and framed, ready for exhibition. It will remain a part of the Smithsonian Art Museum’s collection, protected from further damage for many years to come.

    In this studio conservators restore the surface of paintings to a condition that most closely resembles an earlier unaltered or undamaged state. The two most common procedures that take place here are cleaning and inpainting. During cleaning, conservators carefully remove layers of accumulated grime; darkened varnish; and old, discolored retouching from the surface of paintings. To restore areas of lost paint, conservators fill the areas of loss with gesso, and inpaint them to match surrounding areas of original paint. They use easily reversible materials and take great care not to cover any of the original paint that had been applied by George Catlin

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