What’s a bad day for a conservator? Well, you can imagine. What’s a good day? That may be harder to imagine, but it’s easy enough to know. It is essentially the same as a good day for you, the reader. A problem thought through and resolved is part of a good day for anyone. Do it a few times over and it’s an even better day. What sorts of problems might I, a paintings conservator, think through and how do I think them through so that I have a good day?
One deceptively simple problem is what we call “consolidation,” a treatment that secures loose and loosening paint to its support. Paintings, like most art objects, are composite structures, materials of differing properties glued or hammered or nailed or painted or stuck together—or maybe all of those things, but in the end this composite is an unnatural state of affairs and it will want to come unstuck. I know this from experience as well as from materials science studies applied to paintings. And so it is not surprising when paint comes apart from its support. Solving such a problem is done empirically, by calling upon and testing familiar conservation materials and rehearsed techniques to decide which combination will work best.
For example, one of the first things I learned from a conservator was how to know if the glue I was preparing was just right, that it had the working properties for the consolidation at hand. That glue, my consolidant, was rabbit skin glue. Rabbit skin glues, or more generally animal glues, have a long history in conservation across the world, and was a frequent choice of the conservator who was asking me to prepare it. The glue solid is put in water and heated to bring it into solution. While the glue and water are measured to certain proportions this does not guarantee the desired flow or adhesive strength. The real test of the glue’s properties is to quickly dip your middle finger into the solution while still hot and rapidly tap it with your thumb. As the glue dries its adhesive strength is sensed by how easily, or not, the two fingers stick together in their rhythmic dance. Too strong, too weak, adjust the mixture accordingly until just right. A scientific analysis of this “test” would likely measure the wetting of the two surfaces, my fingers, their contact angles as I bring them together, the shearing forces that accumulate as I move them apart, and much more. None of this goes through my mind, or if it does it can be ignored because I cannot measure those things directly. I am just making sure my adhesive “feels right.” It will smell right as well if you’re curious, but that knowledge comes later with experience. It is a simple thing, but it is illustrative of the fact that science informs much of what we do, but our daily practice—the knowledge we routinely gain and apply directly—is that of the studio, not of the laboratory.
With my adhesive in hand, I will need to deliver the adhesive in between the paint and the surface it was once stuck to. Is a brush, tipped with adhesive, the tool for this? Or maybe a syringe? It is also likely that the loose paint is raised out of plane from the secure paint and needs to be manipulated back to that plane. These flakes and cups of paint will probably need to be made flexible in order to work them back down. Moisture might do the trick but it also might make the paint look blanched. Heat might be the ticket but it might subtly flatten the topography of the paint. And so it goes.
This, in brief, is the process of conservation, whether it is cleaning a surface (a very complex problem), aligning broken bits, or something else. It is a circling of the problem one has defined and characterized from theory and from one’s own knowledge and experience. None of what I have touched on here is particularly heroic, the kind of conservation project that finds its way into the press. Such efforts are rare and indeed a bit misleading as they do not truly reflect the prose of a conservator’s daily workings. Those grand stories are in fact built on a long, sustained series of small actions like consolidation.
Each good day then is about taking these small actions, solving these incremental steps. It’s about just hitting singles and not home runs. Batter up.