Converse with a Conservator | Paintings Care
Okay, so welcome to the first conservation program of 2021 here at the museum. I’m Laura Hoffman, the program manager of the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We sometimes say SAAM for short. For those of you that have joined us before, welcome back. For those of you who are new, this is a monthly online discussion guided by your questions.
So if you've participated in 2020, you all know that my brief housekeeping kicks us off before we really get into the discussion. So as I mentioned, rather than this be a set presentation, this program is a dialogue between you, the audience, and our conservator du jour. So since your cameras and mics are off, please submit your questions through our Q&A feature. I’ll be your host and your moderator, and we'll get to as many questions as we can in the 45 minutes. We are recording this program so that it will be available in our museum video section of the website. I’ll put that in the chat in just a minute. Note that only the panelists audio and camera will show up in this recording. We also have closed captioning today, so if you want to take advantage of this, please hit the CC option at the bottom of the page. Also, please keep your internet browser open because at the end of the program a survey will come up, and it is always great for us to get all of your feedback as we're planning future programs. Our wonderful intern, Armando Rivera, is working behind the scenes in case you have any technical questions, so feel free to use the chat box if you have any issues and he will respond to you.
So before we dig in, I would like to gratefully acknowledge the diverse and vibrant Native communities who make their home here in Washington, D.C., the Native peoples on whose ancestral homelands the museum has gathered, and the labor of people who were enslaved in constructing SAAM’s historic building. We would also like to deeply thank the museum's essential and front-line workers who have been keeping the collection, people, and museum safe throughout the pandemic. They're the backbone of this museum, and we greatly appreciate their hard work.
So if you haven't been here before, I wanted to show you a glimpse into the Lunder Conservation Center. It is the first visible art conservation lab that is on permanent display here at the museum, and so that means I get to offer programs both in person and now online. Tonight, I am delighted to be joined by paintings conservator Gwen Manthey. For this Converse with a Conservator, we thought we would mix it up just a little bit and have it be a chance for you all to ask what your burning questions are on how to care for your paintings. So you might be an artist yourself, or a home collector, maybe even a professional, but we want to know what do you want to know about how to care for your paintings? So before we get into that, it's always helpful to know a little bit about our conservator, so, Gwen, will you start off and let us know how you became a paintings conservator here at SAAM?
GWEN MANTHEY: Yeah, absolutely. I have been at SAAM since 2017. I joined the staff at the Lunder Conservation Center after graduating. Let me roll back a little bit further. A fun question to always ask conservators is their origin story—how did you find out about conservation? Because it isn't typically a well-known field. I was pretty lucky. I learned about conservation really early on when I was probably eleven years old. I got a job cleaning houses to basically earn money for “Baby-Sitters Club” books. That’s something that's a little hysterical, but it was the ‘90s. I couldn't get any babysitting jobs. Those were sort of already taken in the neighborhood, and no one was going to let an eleven-year-old girl mow their lawn. So I got a job with a neighbor, basically dusting and vacuuming her house. My grandmother found out about this and gave me the National Geographic copy—I think it's August 1989 on the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel—and said, “Look what other people clean. How amazing is this to care for artwork and for cultural heritage?”
Well, I sort of forgot about it, being eleven years old, until I was about sixteen and I thought again. High school surveys—working in the arts was something that was always recommended to me, although I had some proclivity for sciences. I got in touch with a conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago—it was like when email first started—and asked him about his training, and he told me that it was a graduate degree. So, you know, I promptly forgot it again until I was in my early 20s.
I was not going to college right after high school. I decided to go ahead and work and figure out what I wanted to do with myself, and I remembered about this one field, conservation. I had also started to take some classes at a local community college, just some beginning painting classes and an art history class, and my life drawing instructor said, “Work with the arts. This is something that you definitely love.” I knew I didn't want to be an artist, so I remembered about this tiny field of art conservation and so researched in order to get my initial bachelor's degree, I actually went to the only university that where you could sort of get primed for that grad degree. I knew it was, again, a master's degree that I would have to shoot for.
So I went to the University of Delaware and took care of all of those essential required classes to apply for one of the grad programs, and there were only a couple in the United States at that point, and then actually returned to the University of Delaware for the master's program. In between, I took some time to buy a house in Houston and get some more pre-program experience and work with some really fantastic people.
From grad school, I did my third-year fellowship at the Walters Art Museum, continued with a post-grad fellowship, went on to the Chrysler Museum of Art for two years as their National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, got a position as assistant paintings conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I focused on the treatment of a very large painting where I treated in public view. They have a Conservation in Action space, and it literally was a closed-in gallery, essentially a fishbowl. I was working on a 19-foot-tall altarpiece by Benjamin West.
Throughout all of my post-grad experiences, there was such a huge aspect of public outreach. I actually found a note not that long ago that I shared with you, Laura, about touring the Lunder Center in 2009 and sort of like dreaming big dreams of how great would it be to work here? Lo and behold, 2017 rolls around, and I had the opportunity to take on a short-term contract and then officially applied for and got the position as paintings conservator, and I’ve been delighted to work with you since that point.
LH: I paid you for that last part. Well, that is a wonderful origin story. People are already sending feedback that they really enjoyed it. Also, we are getting a ton of questions.
GM: Great, I’m so glad.
LH: Look, I know you have some things, but we need to get into this because I’m seeing quite a bit. I’m also seeing some ones, so I might lump a few of them together because I’m already noticing we have a couple ones that are specifically asking about paintings that people have that have been in places with a lot of cigarette smoke.
GM: Oh, yes.
LH: So they want to know about safely cleaning it and/or kind of thinking about it long-term.
GM: Yeah, so as a disclaimer, I would not recommend to any owner of paintings to go about cleaning the works themselves. The most I would like to recommend to people to do in addition to like that desire to care for them—I mean, that's one of the most important things you can do—is dusting the artwork. That's the one thing I feel the most confident in recommending. Almost every skill set can dust their artwork. You just want to use a very soft brush. This is a goat hair hake brush, which you can buy at most of your online retailers or even some fine art supply stores. Before you dust, though, you want to examine the painting to make sure that there are no areas of flaking paint, and I would recommend using some magnifying devices—perhaps you have a magnifying lens—and a strong flashlight and just go over the surface of the painting carefully. But you want to do this before you dust the work at all because I would hate to say you can dust the artwork, but if there's chipping and lifting paint, the possibility is that you know you can accidentally cause parts of these paint flakes to come off.
I have treated a number of paintings that had a pretty thick layer of cigarette smoke on them, and why I don't recommend or tell somebody to clean this painting is because artists didn't always work in one medium. They could have gone in later with something like an acrylic or even a water-soluble oil—these are things that are available in fine arts stores—or even watercolors. The solutions that you would use to remove the cigarette smoke or the tobacco grime—you can actually dissolve some of those original layers. Even acrylic paintings are susceptible to even cleaning with water, so conservators typically go through and test, very carefully, different pigments, different areas to make sure that you're not going to lose any of that color or any of that pigment.
So you can go to the AIC's Find a Conservator website and actually look for a conservator who specializes in paintings in your area. You'll put in your zip code and you'll look into an area as close to like, I think it's five miles away up to 100 miles away. I would also get in touch with your local museum, your fine arts museum, because they might happen to have knowledge of conservators in the area. They should give you a couple of them. At that point, you want to do best practices. As if you're hiring any specialist, any plumber or an electrician, ask for reviews, ask about their education. The AIC has a Professional Associate status, so after a conservator has been trained and demonstrates the experience of a qualified conservator—continuing education, following ethical standards, documentation—you can get recommendations for those conservators, but then you also want to talk with the conservator and see who best fits with you. Who will explain what it is they're seeing in the artwork and detail how they are going to treat for that artwork? It might be remedial and it could be something that's very interventive because, in addition to tobacco grime, there could be other issues, such as flaking paint.
LH: I just want to let you know; I did put the link in the chat for the American Institute for Conservation’s Find a Conservator tool online. I put that in the chat now. One thing that's come out in other programs is the chat does go away at the end, so if you're interested in this link, click on it now and it'll save on your internet browser for after the program because I know you're going to reference it a lot. I know we use it. We talk about it for people who ask us. It's a really amazing resource.
So another question, because you mentioned dusting and that has come up quite a bit as well, is thinking about dusting paintings—a couple people have asked what if there's no glass? What if it is just the actual canvas? So tell us a little bit on your thoughts on that.
GM: Absolutely. I’m going to go ahead and stop my screen share a little bit. I have a bunch of props, so I want to be able to pull them up. We prepared very thoroughly for you. The painting's in the museum—not everything is behind glass. That is where we're also just dusting with a soft brush, maybe something a little bit bigger than this. First, we're going to go through and we're going to inspect everything with some OptiVISORs and a strong flashlight.
So I want to just show you the OptiVISORs that we regularly use and some options for you at home. So these are basically jewelers loupes that you can wear on your head, and you can get different strengths to magnify what it is you're seeing. These are also very handy. I know, Laura, that you're a fan of these very small glasses, and you can even get them with a little light. I found these on a major online retailer, and they're sort of geared towards putting in false eyelashes. They're quite economical, so that is an option for you to use as well.
LH: Great to get things dual purpose. One question that came up—can you show and say the brush again that you had mentioned so we can see it larger?
GM: I just actually dropped it, but I have another brush. I have another brush on hand. So this is yet another goat hair brush. They don't have to be goat hair, but you can actually even use a soft makeup brush. You want to get it brand new, one of those big blush brushes. But I would also recommend taping up that metal ferrule, and I have a small brush here to show you what a ferrule is. So this is just a small brush on hand. This is the ferrule, and you want to make sure that you cover this with a little bit of blue tape because you want to be sure that the metal doesn't actually scratch the surface. Obviously, you would get something a bit bigger than this and longer bristles. I mention makeup brushes because you know these are designed to be nice and soft, and they're not going to scratch you as you're using them. Make sure it's brand new and try to clean it regularly.
LH: Well, it sounds like the things to look for in brushes, because there are so many ones, is you want them to be really soft and, if possible, animal made as opposed to synthetic. Although, if so, it should be a very soft one.
GM: Yeah, you can get some soft nylon, but the goat hair tends to be pretty soft very consistently.
LH: You want it to be new, so if you buy a makeup brush, this is not a dual purpose one. You should not use it on your face. It will not work out well for your painting. You should tape up, so that no metal scratches. Those are kind of the three biggies.
GM: Yes, yes.
LH: You can get them, as you said, at any art supply store, online, or even if you're doing like your favorite makeup company, though those actually might be more expensive.
GM: Yeah, they would. You can get a small hake brush like this for less than ten dollars, depending on your area. One thing is, though, the lower quality brushes—the bristles will come out. So you are paying for a better brush when it's slightly more expensive. These aren't going to come out. But when you're only dry brushing, they don't come off as much. But you can always go through and just give it a little grab, and so I pulled out a little hair there, for instance, just to sort of prime it. That way you're not leaving little bristles on your paintings.
LH: Okay, so we have so many. This is amazing. As I thought, no, we just have so many questions with this. So we've kind of talked a little bit about dusting, and we can ask more. One quick, quick question is how often would you do dusting for paintings at home?
GM: Yeah, so we dust pretty regularly at the museum because we have visitors that come through for the sole purpose of looking at the artwork, and people equate dust. But also, if you're living in a home where you have pets, you like to have the windows open, there is pollen that comes in, and depends on if you have carpet or not, and how regularly you clean your home as well. I recommend doing it—you can make it seasonal. As the seasons change, you can dust. Actually, I would keep a little record book—something to just slide in there a bit that you can do for your own housekeeping and for your own record.
So as you're noticing as a work changes and, similarly, when you first get an artwork or you're thinking about how does it change, you can also buy yourself a little ColorChecker. I got this, again, on a major online retailer. When you first get your artwork, try to take a high-resolution photograph with a ColorChecker in there, and make sure it's listed with your homeowners insurance as fine art. So if you are a collector and you're serious about building your collection, your homeowners insurance doesn't necessarily protect artworks. I think it's a thousand dollars or something was the limit when it comes to fine art, so it needs to be registered separately. So take a picture of it with a ColorChecker, and you can file it in your backup drive, your homeowners documents as well. But refer to that. As the years go by, it could be ten years later where you take a photograph and you're comparing them, and you might notice with that ColorChecker in there, you've got a calibration to see if there has been any darkening, any change.
LH: Great. Well, this is—I mean, I personally never thought about my insurance policy, so I have some homework for myself to do after this. Another question I’m seeing a lot of—different but the same theme—is about sunlight, direct sunlight. We've got questions about northern sunlight, southern sunlight. What are your thoughts on sun exposure, and, I guess, broader light exposure on paintings?
GM: Yes, so sunlight, as we know, sunlight does a lot. It catalyzes a lot of oxidation and degradation of fine art materials, so it can cause darkening of papers, it can cause development of acids in some lower quality textiles and lower quality paper as well. Conversely, it will actually fade fugitive pigments. So I’m thinking of your natural dyes or your organic dye materials. These are things that, as opposed to your inorganic pigments, where you literally have a stone that is crushed down to a fine powder and bound by that adhesive, those tend to be pretty lightfast is the term that's used in the fine art field. Again, we might not know exactly what a painting’s pigments were. If they were made out of all of those inorganics, it might be fine in the sunlight.
But the other thing to think about is, when things are in direct sunlight, the environment changes quite drastically. Your temperature is going to raise, and in relation to that, the relative humidity is going to change as well. Your organic materials might flex, expand, or contract in response to that changing environment. So I understand and I sympathize with the desire to see your artwork well, but those considerations need to be taken into play. So you could, essentially, put your painting behind glazing or behind a UV filter glass to protect it, but you're still going to get some visible light, which can actually cause some change, even though it might be protected by UV. That's something I didn't even address in the early on, that the UV that's in sunlight will actually catalyze that deterioration as well and cause darkening of varnishes, too.
LH: Okay, so then are you basically saying… I’m just thinking about it. If I’m looking around my home, and I have some important paintings for me. I mean, honestly, it’s like what do you really want to value, and that's different than the monetary value. Are you saying that as tempting as it is to put it as close to a window as possible, it's not a good idea?
GM: No, it's not advised at all. Don't put it in direct sunlight. If you have no choice, northern light is actually pretty good. It tends to be very filtered. You're reflecting off of the atmosphere as well. So it's going to be safer than, say, something that's in southern exposure. Where we are in the northern hemisphere, of course, your southern exposure is going to be more direct and is going to have a more deleterious effect.
LH: Great. Okay, so a few other questions I’m seeing some multiples on is—oh, one thing. A couple just clarifications is, going back to the dustings, just to clarify, can you dust paintings both with and without glass or, as you called it, glazing?
GM: Yeah, you can. So when something's behind glazing, the dust isn't necessarily going to be on the painted surface. It will be the glass itself, and you can dust that. There, you also want to keep in mind your frame because the glazing will probably be held in place by the frame, and you can dust both. I actually have a little jar of brushes that are behind me, and so I have some that are labeled just for the frame and just for the painted surface because your frames are going to have more exposed surfaces and those are going to get dustier. So you can dust the frame with one and dust the painting with the other, and then after your dusting session, wash all of your brushes thoroughly for the next season.
LH: Yes, okay, and people did ask about that for washing brushes. Is that just soap and water?
GM: You know, actually, so you mentioned a great soap in the cleaning outdoor sculpture. It’s one of the major soaps. Dawn dish detergent is really fantastic. You need one tiny, little drop in a mixing bowl full of water, and you can clean your brushes in that way, as opposed to pouring your soap into the bristles directly. You could leave soap residue behind, so I would create yourself a little frothy water bath and swirl your brushes in that and then rinse them thoroughly as well.
LH: Okay, and another question that people want to know more about is you mentioned the ColorChecker, and not everyone's familiar with it. So you take it at the beginning, but can you just explain why it's a valuable tool for both conservators but also maybe at home as well?
GM: Absolutely. So ColorCheckers allow you to balance the light. So the light that I have actually behind the computer right now—I have a blend of cool and warm lighting to create an even light throughout, and it keeps things from washing out. So here you've got pure grays, as opposed to if I only had warm lights in here, the whites would actually tend to look a little bit more yellow. What this does is it allows you to compare whatever else is in that photograph. When this is balanced correctly—so each of these grays have a specific numerical RGB value when it is put into a photo processing software. You don't necessarily have to do this on your own. It's useful if you are taking this to a professional who regularly treats these types of objects to understand how that artifact might have changed over time. So within the museum, when we're doing treatment, when we're doing the documentation, we always have a ColorChecker because it might be years or decades in between the time an artwork is on display or treated, and so we want to compare what it looked like earlier as well as before and after treatment. So you can see how well did the visible appearance of the artwork improve after it was cleaned. So that's the purpose of a ColorChecker.
LH: So what you're saying is it's slightly more advanced. So if you are going to take this after and do what Gwen says and get a notebook and start cataloging every time you dust, then this might be a really good next step. It might not be for everyone.
GM: No, no, not at all. I’m thinking artists who—they're painting dozens of paintings, and they're trying out different pigments. Even Turner at one point—he was approached by an owner of some of his paintings that he had made who had complained about the fact that his pigments had actually faded within a couple years of him purchasing it, and Turner's response was something along the lines of, “Well, that's not my problem. You purchased the artwork that I had painted. I wasn't guaranteeing that it would stay the same forever.”
LH: I think that's a great clarification with it. I think it is a really cool tool. I love seeing it when you're looking at treatments and you see like the before and after. I really feel like the ColorChecker, you can see how important of a tool it is. Someone just asked—they said is the ColorChecker electronic? It's always an in-person physical because you have to see it in the context, right?
GM: Yeah, and again, so be very careful when you handle this. You want to have clean hands. You do not want to touch the colors themselves because the oils in your hand, just like on artwork, can actually start to stain and degrade this. So it's in a little protective sleeve, and it is kept in the dark when it is not being actively used for photography.
LH: Okay, this is just a little bit separate, but I love this question, so I got to switch to it. Someone asked what cleaning methods—and I’m going to broaden it up—what things should you not do at home that you have heard about?
GM: There's so many.
LH: I know!
GM: There's so many. There's the spraying the back of the canvas with a water bottle. There's cleaning a painting with breadcrumbs. There's cleaning a painting with a half a potato or trying to bleach darkened varnish with the half of a lemon. There are so many things that can go wrong, especially when we don't know what those materials are. We don't know what kind of life or what kind of restoration materials are actually on the surface of that painting. So you can be rubbing with that potato until the cows come home, and there might not be a change at all. Essentially what that potato is doing is it's absorbing dirt. That moisture that's in there is cleaning some of that aqueous grime, but it's also leaving starches behind on the surface of that painting, so don't put a painting in a tub and hose it down. Don't use Windex on a painting! I have seen many paintings that have been heavily damaged and chemically abraded because Windex is ammonia. You have something that is incredibly alkaline. You're basically going to saponify your oil paint itself.
LH: Save it for the windows, basically.
GM: Definitely. There are so many don'ts, and I really don't like saying no to people until it comes to things that they care heavily about. I mean, there is a lot of irreparable damage that can occur.
LH: Yeah, so I mean if it's at that point where it's more than just a dusting, that is when you really should go to a professional or at least getting a consultation from a professional and they'll advise you because maybe it's best to just leave it alone and not do an interventive treatment, right? So just best to ask before acting.
GM: Yeah, many conservators offer complimentary consultations. You take your artwork to them and they can tell you know whether or not it's in good condition and if it needs treatment and if this is within their scope. The tricky part comes into when they're trying to provide estimates. It's impossible to provide an accurate estimate for the cost of treatment over the phone or through email because a conservator will want to test how soluble is that surface grime? Is it the effective way to treat it? What is the varnish? Is the varnish supposed to be removed? Will that actually improve the appearance? Almost all the time, a conservator is going to actually need to have access and test that artwork in order to provide estimates, but, often, looking at the artwork in person can tell you whether or not it's in good condition and if it needs treatment.
LH: Okay, so this question comes from the artist side, but on the flip side, Gwen, several other people have asked it as a home collector. So the question from the artist is what do you recommend for painters to do in order for their paintings to last longer and not become cracked? Thinking about oil and acrylic. On the flip side, several people have said that they have had paintings at home, particularly ones that had been rolled, and are now cracked.
GM: Yeah, so from the get-go, if a practicing artist—in order to get their finished composition, they'll often be modifying that paint, thinning it out with spirits or adding oil to it to increase the gloss or thin out the color and blending the colors together. I think from the get-go, high-quality materials is incredibly important, and you want to have an understanding of how these materials often age as well. So something like your newsprint that you use for your sketching, and I still have a bunch of those newsprint still life drawing things that I’ve made, and that paper has heavily yellowed because it is not a good quality. If I was more confident, then I might have used cotton rag paper, which is going to age well, because it doesn't have that lignin content in it that will cause that type of deterioration.
Similarly, your canvases—it will last longer to paint on linen than it is on jute, but I know that there is a significant cost difference in those materials. It might be as well that you prefer to do highly detailed fine work, and so it might be better for you to work on a solid support. It will be better to paint on blueboard than it is on cardboard. Again, you've got an acid content. There are a number of solid supports that you can get at the fine arts supply store or, perhaps, you make your own. You get some wood, and you prepare it with layers of gesso and then start painting. Understanding how these materials react to temperature and relative humidity is going to be key to prevent things like cracking.
Conversely, if an artist is painting not in that “fat over lean”—so that was something that was always traditionally taught, “fat over lean.” You want to have the most oil content layers on top because those are going to take longer to dry, as opposed to something that is thinned out with spirits. You have two different mechanisms of drying, and so this is where I really get Laura excited is when I talk about the chemical differences in all of these different materials. So there's a reason why many paintings from the 14th through the 19th century last, and it's because you had a very traditional academic approach to painting that that did age well. The trouble comes into play when sort of the academic studio went by the wayside and people were becoming self-taught and they're using all of this non-traditional material in their paint layers—things like bitumen and waxes and lanolin. Those don't necessarily dry and create films in the same manner as your linseed oil, which is a traditional type of pigment binder. So using the best quality materials that you can afford is going to be the best thing you can do as a practicing artist.
Now, on the obverse side, if you have something—I would never recommend, not never—sometimes you have to roll a painting. But understanding what is going to happen to that paint film. So we do roll paintings. You have to roll a painting that is 20 feet long in order to get it moved safely domestically or internationally, unless, of course, you are going to rent an entire freighter plane to move it. So in rolling, it needs to be really wide rolls, which are going to compensate for the mechanical damage that's going to occur to that paint film. Because as a paint film, it's quite supple and pliant and it will flex and it will stretch when it's young, and then as it ages, it actually becomes a brittle, solid material. It's only through the manipulation of that film, through heat and relative humidity, that you can actually regain that elasticity of the film.
LH: Yeah, that sounds like—a couple of questions with it have said can you fix it at home? Don't fix it at home? Go to a professional. You have to play with the humidity—but maybe you can talk a little bit with it then if you do notice a painting at home that's starting to crack, like are there ways to mitigate it from getting worse?
GM: Yeah, definitely. I’m so glad you said mitigate because that's the thing. A paint film is actually is a solid film, and a crack is a permanent incision in that film layer. That is going to have some effects on the painting going forward. It can start being a point where it lifts and it flakes away, and so a conservator will need to go in and do that consolidation and remediate or mitigate that appearance. A crack can be treated so it's not visible, but it's still there. All we do is we mask it so it's not going to be visibly disturbing. It's just like if you were to break glass. An objects conservator can repair the glass so it's not quite as visible, but that break will always be there.
LH: Interesting. Yeah, that's a that's a neat comparison because it does make sense with the breaks like that. So in the mind of with that mitigation, several other questions have come up with a term that everyone might not be familiar with: foxing. So could you break down what foxing is and if, again, some people are starting to notice it, so what they can do to mitigate more?
GM: Okay, foxing actually happens most often in paper, and so a paper conservator will be able to tell you a bit more about foxing, and if the knowledge I got in grad school, which is now nearly a decade old—
LH: You don't have to say from when.
GM: Foxing is essentially the appearance of yellowish, yellow-to-brown stains that occur in paper, and they can appear spontaneously, and so it looks almost as if you were to drop spots of water on that piece of paper, but this happens randomly and not necessarily anything that you have done. There is acid migration that will occur in discolor paper, but I’m going to leave that for our paper conservator to talk about.
LH: I’m wondering if people are perhaps confusing that with, like could mold collect on a painting?
LH: Maybe it's just like not being able to identify what it is.
GM: Exactly, yeah.
LH: What would you do if you spot mold?
GM: Yeah, oh, goodness. Well, okay, so this is a good thing to mention, too, for all practicing artists and homeowners who are dusting artwork—think about your personal safety. If you are sensitive to dust, you will want to wear a dust mask. If you are an artist who's practicing and using mineral spirits, you should have proper ventilation. When it comes to mold, many of us are sensitive to mold, and so your PPE would be then eyewear or a mask—and we should all have masks at this point—will provide some protection against that.
You can remediate mold; mold is an organic living object, and it needs to be deactivated and then remediated or removed. So you can kill mold with a variety of methods, and the best method to advise is going to depend on the material that that mold is actually growing on. A very passive way of dealing with mold is actually exposing it to UV light, and so direct sunlight can actually help. Short bursts of direct sunlight can help kill mold, and then you can actually remove it with something like a HEPA vacuum.
LH: Oh my. Sounds complicated.
GM: Yeah, so lots of spots. You can have things that get flung onto your painting, so if you have a painting on display in your dining room and you have an exuberant guest who's like demonstrating with their wine glass—
LH: Don't invite them back! Right? Then they're cut off. They’re done.
GM: Or, you know, flies that can land on the surface of the paint layer. Fly specks is actual term that we use in conservation. These are little dark spots that are actually secreted from the fly, and they're quite acidic and they can actually stain a paint layer or etch varnish layers as well. So you have a whole range of spots and discolorations that can occur to your artist materials, or your fine art.
LH: So you mentioned the fly spots. People have been asking about tiny insect holes.
GM: Ugh, yeah, so we have all of our pests in the world that like to eat these things because canvas, wood, protein-based size layers—this is all food for pests. Especially if you have a painting on display where you have cooking residues or food, it's going to attract them more regularly. So if you have fine art storage, and I don't have one on me—we have glue traps where you can actually order glue traps and have them on display. After it’s been eaten by a pest, I mean, that's gone. A conservator can actually remediate the appearance of those holes. It may be treated in a very similar way as if somebody were to go up and actually poke a hole through something. The best thing to do about pests, honestly, is just to prevent them from getting there. So you think about where your artwork is and you think about the activities that are happening in the spaces where artwork is on display or stored, which is why food is not allowed in the galleries specifically for this reason.
LH: So, again, be very mindful what artwork you choose and the places that you eat, right?
GM: Yeah, I mean, that old adage: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It is so much easier to prevent damage than it is to repair it. Because quite often a repair can be made not visible to the eye, but all of our materials that we put on an artwork to restore its condition, that ages and it deteriorates. Ideally, we're using—yes, conservators are using excellent materials that have shown and tested to be stable and can last decades, but that period of aging is different from the original materials and so our materials will become visibly apparent in four to six decades sometimes if it's in a good environment. If you're putting it in an area of direct sunlight and you're not protecting it from the environment, our materials might age much more quickly than that.
LH: So it's, again, getting the return on your investment with it.
LH: We do only have a couple minutes left.
LH: I know. It goes by so quickly. Another couple questions that people have that I’m lumping together is questions about varnish and, again, not everyone might be super familiar with it, so could you briefly explain what that is and then maybe thinking about what that might look like in your home and caring for different varnishes?
GM: I had just the right prop for this, too. It's an old, river-washed oyster shell. So the role of a varnish is essentially to saturate the layer, and it does provide some protection but that wasn't originally why it was applied. So I have a little thing here. This painting has not been varnished yet, so you can see the variation in surface gloss. What a varnish will do, with this oyster shell, for instance, it's just like when you pull a river rock out. So it saturates that so you can see those colors that were that were originally there. It brings out these details and the values of an artwork. Not every artwork needs to be varnished. I’m going to highlight one of your favorite artists, Alma Thomas. Her paintings weren't necessarily meant to be varnished, and they wouldn't be visually improved necessarily by varnishing either. It comes down to how those original materials age.
So varnishes are different from paints chemically, and we exploit that as conservators. Varnishes will dry by evaporation, and they can be re-solubilized with targeted solvents. You can get a variety of varnishes at the art supply store, be they solid resinous form that you put into solution yourself, you can even get some that is already dissolved, even in a spray can that you can put. Some of those might be the same original resins that are used by conservators, but they might have been modified. So, for instance, this one is considered a matte varnish, and it has wax in there to make it matte. But we don't know the concentration. We don't know the solvents or how that's going to age, so a conservator will often make their own varnish and apply it either by brush or by spray. Again, we're trying to use things that age really, really well and it's going to buy a significant shelf life or a display life for that object.
But the thing that we exploit, too, is we want to know the solubility of these things. So I know what those varnishes are soluble in. The concern comes if I need to use a specific solvent to dissolve that varnish, is it going to dissolve the painting underneath as well? So, again, acrylics—these are very soluble, sensitive films.
GM: So, I mean, look. It sounds like you could teach a master class on varnishes alone. So there's a lot more to dig into. I feel like maybe if there's good feedback for it, maybe we do a continuation because I wish I could have gotten into all of these questions. They're amazing. I did put in here a bunch of links right now, so you can click on them. We have the feedback form, and if you have a follow-up question, we included the email so we can try and get back with you on it because, again, you guys have just so many questions this round. We also have registration open for our next Converse with a Conservator; that's on February 3. I also put in the links for our online calendar as well as where the recording for this program and our past programs live. So, Gwen, thank you so much. This was super illuminating, and you definitely put me to shame in my home. The thing is, it's the basics, right? You're not all going to walk away being a conservator, but hopefully you got some really good tips and tricks for things that you can do at home.
GM: I mean, there's a reason why you get a master's degree to become a conservator in the United States. There's a lot to think about here. But thank you. This has been so much fun.
LH: Gwen, the main takeaways are don't try this at home but also prevention, prevention, prevention—and there are always professionals should it be past the point of prevention.
GM: Yes, there's many resources online about how to provide preventive care for your collection, so we're not reinventing the wheel here for you on that.
LH: Alright, well thank you for joining us, Gwen. Have a good one, everyone. Have a good evening.
Do you have questions about how to care for your paintings at home? This year, many of us have started making artwork at home and have looked to creativity for solace.
On Wednesday, January 13, 2021, Paintings Conservator Gwen Manthey and Lunder Conservation Center Program Manager Laura Hoffman led an engaging virtual question-and-answer on the best way to take care of and safely store paintings you have at home.