The Painting Conservation Lab is responsible for the care of paintings from the IMA’s European, American, African, Modern and contemporary collections and paintings on loan from museums and private collectors. The conservators of the Painting Conservation Lab focus on the examination, preventive care and hands-on treatment of the paintings. In 2010, that focus was expanded to include collaboration and research with a new state-of-the-art conservation science lab.

The process of conservation treatment always begins with a thorough physical examination to evaluate the construction and condition of the many layers that comprise the painting. Traditional easel paintings often consist of a support (usually wood panel, copper, or fabric such as canvas), a ground or preparatory layer, paint layers (ranging from encaustic [wax], fresco, egg tempera, oil, to modern synthetics such as acrylic), and sometimes a protective (varnish, wax, etc.) coating . In some cases, the painting conservators collaborate with our IMA conservation colleagues in other specialties to address other painted surfaces, such as polychrome sculpture, painted furniture, and paintings on paper or textiles. This collaboration is essential for non-traditional materials including Modern and contemporary paintings which are often very sensitive to environmental fluctuations and may fade or deteriorate more quickly than traditional painting materials.

Technical examination is carried out when the conservator wants to understand further details about the materials and construction of a painting, either for art historical research or for information to aid with the conservation treatment. Commonly this work is carried out by the conservator and includes examination with ultraviolet (UV) light, x-radiography, and infrared reflectography (IRR). UV is used to characterize varnishes and identify areas of previous restorations based on observation of a characteristic fluorescence of the materials on the surface. Conservators x-ray paintings to look at the structure or potential areas of damage that may be hidden under layers of paint. IRR incorporates the use of special imaging equipment to examine underdrawings and preparatory sketches that may be present beneath the layers of paint. Further analysis can be carried out in collaboration with the Conservation Scientist.

Painting conservators often approach treatments by addressing both structural concerns and aesthetic issues.

Structural problems can include repairing major physical damages such as tears in a canvas, cracks and splits in a wooden panel, or flaking paint. Aesthetic issues range from removing dirt and grime, old yellowed varnish, and old restorations to inpainting or re-constructing areas of loss or damage. Treatment choices are carried out with ethical considerations to preserve the artist’s original intent and by using stable and reversible materials. Reversibility is particularly important when it come to inpainting; conservators only add new materials where the original is missing and those materials should be able to be safely removed from the original painting.

In addition to paintings, the conservators care for the frames in the collection. Frames not only house and protect the works of art, but are often works of art in themselves. There are a number of frames in the collection that date from the same period as the painting as well as some frames that were designed and/or made by the artist. Frames from the IMA’s collection mainly include traditional wooden frames that have been carved, gessoed, and gilt. Conservation of the Museum’s frames not only includes the care and preservation of frames through the ages, but it can include the research and development of new frames in the style of the original when the original no longer survives.