AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Photographic Materials Session, May 11, “The Photograph Information Record” by Erin Murphy and Nora Kennedy

At last month’s AIC meeting, I had the pleasure of attending several of the PMG sessions, including this one on the Photograph Information Record, or “PIR” for short.  The form was introduced in 2009 following several years of collaboration between the Photographic Materials Research Group, photograph conservators, and colleagues in conservation science, collections management, and curatorial.  The goal was to create an international standard for an artist’s questionnaire, to collect essential information to aid in preservation efforts. The result was a concise, two-page form.  A completed PIR covers the history and context of creation, ownership, exhibition, conservation, and publication of a photograph, and provides information about the tools and processes of image creation, printing, and finishing.  It asks artists to discuss what aspects of the work they consider integral, and gives them an opportunity to provide a statement about the creation and preservation of the work.

In this session Erin Murphy, photograph conservator at the New York Public Library, reviewed the history of the PIR and discussed its present stage of development.  Many institutions around the world have formally adopted the PIR, and now plans are underway to collect feedback from users in order to develop the next generation – a new and improved form.

French, Spanish, and Japanese versions are available, with more translations in the works.  For some committees working on translations, it poses a real challenge to agree on terminology or create terms in the language that didn’t exist before.  Some mentioned that those discussions may be suitable for the wiki, and for the glossary project.

Future goals include expanding the visibility and availability of the PIR on the web.  Right now, the form is available in several languages as a free download on the AIC website at  ICOM-CC-PM members can access it on the ICOM-CC website.  The form can also be found on a few other sites, such as a gallery or library here and there. A secondary PR campaign will also help raise awareness and encourage more institutions, galleries, and photographers themselves to adopt this valuable tool.  Some attendees suggested potential audiences, including photography curators, and the registrars’ groups of AAM and ICOM.

Another goal is to see if improvements can be made to the PDF format.  Form fields in the PDF make it easy to complete the form, but the information is not easy to import into museum databases.  The PIR’s creators would also like to see access to the PIR expand within institutions to reach more departments and researchers.

It’ll be exciting to see the new directions that the PIR form takes in the coming months.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting-May 11, 2012 Joint Session: Book and Paper Group/Research and Technical Studies, with the Archives Conservation Discussion Group and the Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group “Mass De-Acidification Today”

The session was a series of short presentations by the panelists followed by a question and answer session that was open to the floor as well as pre-submitted questions from the AIC membership.

The panelists were: James Burd, President and CEO of Preservation Technologies, LP; Michael Ramin, Project Manager Research/Analytics, Nitrochemie; Dick Smith, owner Wei T’o Associates; Fenella France, Chief, Preservation of Research and Testing Division, Library of Congress; Nora Lockshin, Smithsonian Institution Archive on behalf of Anna Friedman, Conservator, National Archives and Records Administration.

The first presentation by James Burd “Bookkeeper Deacidification: The Chemistry Behind the Process” began with a review of Preservation Technologies’ twenty years in business, including an overview of their products and services as well as the scope of their operations.  Mr. Burd spent the most time describing the Bookkeeper process, that it is a non-toxic, non-flammable, non-VOC, odorless process that does not use solvents or produce effluents.  The alkaline agent is magnesium oxide (MgO) and in the mass-process it is delivered in an inert suspension liquid in which the books are immersed, relying on an electrostatic attraction to cellulose to deposit the MgO in the paper.  Mr. Burd referenced recent research at the Canadian Conservation Institute and assorted technical studies at the Library of Congress in support of the effectiveness of the Bookkeeper process and reminded the audience that whatever the challenges presented by brittle collections, the greatest risk is doing nothing.

Michael Ramin followed with his talk “Durability, Quality Control, and Ink Corrosion Treatment with the Papersave Swiss Mass De-Acidification Process”.  Papersave is a solvent based process using hexamethylene disiloxane (HMDO) as the solvent and magnesium as the alkaline agent.  For treatment, the books are placed in metal baskets, which are then placed in a chamber for pre-drying, treatment, post drying and re-conditioning.  Papers, books and drawings can be treated by this process.  The items are treated in a vacuum chamber which ensures saturation by the treatment solution followed by the reconditioning process which allows moisture back into the chamber and the moisture in the air activates the deposited alkaline reserve.  The company performs regular quality control in line with the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) and has retained 12 years’ worth of data including surface pH and XRF measurements to determine distribution of alkaline reserve.  Papersave also has sample sets for real time ageing at five and ten year intervals.  According to Mr. Ramin, the Papersave process is alos safe for paper that has iron gall ink corrosion since “through the treatment the acid is neutralized without removal or migration of the ions, on the contrary some of the iron is bound and neutralized.”

Dick Smith’s talk “Wei T’o Paperguard: Comprehensively De-acidifying, Stabilizing and Strengthening Paper” was third in the line-up although all the presenters acknowledged Mr. Smith as a foundation researcher and advocate for the mass de-acidification of paper.  The original Wei T’o product was one of the first on the market for the treatment of acidic paper and Mr. Smith spent a portion of his talk describing how he became interested in the science of paper de-acidification, explaining that even though a piece of paper is thin, penetrating the surface with an even distribution of an alkaline agent is not an easy task to accomplish, especially 30-40 years ago when the technology was not very advanced.  Mr. Smith then went on to profile a new Wei T’o product, still in the development phase, called Paperguard which not only de-acidifies, but also protects paper from fungal growth and pests.  It is a zinc-based process that is environmentally sustainable since the by-products of the process are recoverable.

The fourth presentation was by Fenella France “Taking the Measure: Treatment and Testing in Mass Deacidification” and started with a review of the Library of Congress’ research into the mass de-acidification process which began in the 1970’s and expanded in the 1990’s.  While the Library of Congress has vast historical collections, they are also still taking in acidic collections from all over the world and their current mass de-acidification treats more late 20th and early 21st century books from India, Spain, USA, etc. than 19th century material.  The initial goal for the Library’s research was to establish a process that would deposit an alkaline reserve that tripled the longevity of an item, Bookkeeper was selected and a treatment facility was installed on-site at the Madison building.  Testing and quality control is ongoing, but Ms. France sees a real need for the library research community to do more independent testing and not rely on vendor sources since there is too much variation in test methods to allow for meaningful comparison of data.  A single measure that could be applied across the different mass de-acidification processes would enhance the assessment process and allow for agreement on the definition of progress.

The final presentation was Nora Lockshin on behalf of Anna Friedman “Evaluating De-Acidification After 20 Years of Natural Aging”.  Ms. Friedman’s research focused on a treatment group from a 1989-1991 project at the Smithsonian Institution Archives where over 500 architectural drawings out of a record group of over 2,000 were sent out for de-acidification with Wei T’o Soft Spray or an aqueous bath with Magnesium Bicarbonate.  Ms. Friedman used surface pH testing and colorimetric measurements at 5 points across the front of a drawing to evaluate the long term effectiveness of the de-acidification treatments.  The colorimetric evaluation did not show any trends, but the surface pH showed that the application of Wei T’o was very uneven across the surface of the document.  This would make sense given the application process of Soft Spray.  However, comparison with a control group showed that documents that had been treated for mass de-acidification did have a higher pH after 20 years of natural aging.

The open discussion that followed began with a submitted question

SubQ: Is spraying of individual items as effective?

A: Papersave and Paperguard cannot be applied singly- mass only

Q: (Emily Rainwater) As a user of post-Bookkeeper treated items, she finds a lot of residue from handling the books, e.g. turning pages.

A: (Burd)- The particulates should go away as the treated book ages. (France)- Early in the development of the Bookkeeper process the particles were fairly large; they’re smaller now, so the white powder problem should go away.

Q: (Eric Hansen)- Italian conservators and others have complained that Bookkeeper changes the feel of the paper.  Will Bookkeper address this question in a direct way so that this issue can be settled?

A: (Burd)- People really shouldn’t be able to tell, he has spray with him and offered to let people spray samples of paper and feel for themselves.  The particle size is small and the quality control protocol of mass de-acidification is rigorous.  (Smith)- Is particle size really the issue? Are we measuring what we think we’re measuring in terms of quality control? The TAPPI tests that we generally use are a standard, but are not precise to our need.

Q: (John Batty)- What does Mr. Burd mean by “pure” alkaline reserve?

A: (Burd)The magnesium that Bookkeeper uses is of high purity, but also there is no residue of other treatment fluids after the process is completed since the Bookkeeper process is full recovery.

Q: (John Batty)- To Mr. Smith: are you planning to treat artist’s materials to a specific pH?

A:(Smith) Not just to a specific pH, but also using zinc to ensure fungal and pest prevention.

Q: (Johanna P) To M. Burd, how is the benefit to ink measured, given that iron gal ink is supposed to stay acidic? Also, what about the color change or yellowing of treated items?

A: (Burd) If you have an ink you want to stay acidic, don’t treat it with a de-acidification process.  If you want to stabilize iron gall ink and protect the substrate as well, then the Bookkeper process can be directed toward strengthening of paper.

A: (Ramin)- Non aqueous is better treatment since the paper is not as stressed.

A: (Smith): Commenting on paper yellowing after treatment by Wei T’o; he took yellowing as a sign of effectiveness since it demonstrated penetration of spray (this was in the early days) but don’t give up on de-acidification, work on delivery of the alkaline reserve.

A: (Burd)- Commenting on yellowing- Since the Bookkeeper process doesn’t use a solvent, there shouldn’t be any yellowing.  Some researchers have spotted yellowing due to aging of magnesium, but Burd thinks the books would probably have yellowed anyway, so the magnesium application just changes the characteristics of the yellowing. Burd went on to comment that yellowing is only present in artificially aged paper samples, and that 20 years is not long enough for real time aging to be conclusive.

A: (Ramin) Papersave tests show some yellowing in ground wood and to comment on mold remediation, the Papersave drying process kills mold, which is a side benefit.  Once treated, collections tend to have better storage conditions, so mold is less likely to grow again

A: (Smith)- Zinc has potential for mold and pest prevention in addition to mass de-acidification.

A: (Burd)- Alkalization does help with mold prevention

Q: (Ursula ?): Could there be more natural aging studies? To Ms. France, given ten years of using Bookkeeper, are you doing any studies? To Ms. Lockshin: were the treated papers stored differently?

A: (France)- Yes, the Library of Congress is initiating a long term study.

A: (Lockshin) all treated drawings were encapsulated and then opened for analysis but were otherwise stored together.

Q: (Cathleen Baker): the audience knows a lot about the complexity of paper, but the ads and trade lit is a little unsophisticated and implies that mass treatment should be readily applied, whereas selection is a more complex process.  What about the effect of mass de-acidification on lignin?

A: (Burd)- This has been reported in literature, but if you attack lignin you will make paper weaker, to prevent this effect, don’t select items that are brittle where the lignin or cellulose is already weak, they can’t be rebuilt by mass de-acidification.

A: (Lockshin) Commented that the Smithsonian receives many reference calls, people have seen an ad for a product and want information on its effectiveness.

Q: (Renate Mesmer) The Folger Library has just started a Bookkeeper project and wanted to comment that handling of books for the Bookkeeper process is extreme, given the fanning out and agitation.  They have also found very high amounts of white deposits, and given these high amounts of surface deposits, is anything going to the core of the paper?

A: (Burd)- Since we don’t use solvents we have to fan the books so that the alkaline particles can make their way into the paper.  If a book is too delicate for the mass process, then use the single item process. Distressed to hear that there are a lot of white deposits.  Porosity of the paper is the dependent factor on penetration, but acids migrate toward the alkaline particles so this shouldn’t ultimately be a problem.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Tamarind Institute Tour

Posted on behalf of Debora Mayer.

The tour of the Tamarind Lithography Workshop was a highlight of the conference. Tamarind was founded in Los Angeles in 1960 as a means to invigorate the art of lithography by training master printers and forging collaborations with artists. Tamarind moved to Albuquerque in 1970, became affiliated with the University of New Mexico and continues to train printers in a MFA program.

As a student in lithography in the 1970’s I was enamored with and extensively referenced the textbook The Tamarind Book of Lithography Art and Techniques by Garo Antreasian and Clinton Adams. My copy of the book is now deteriorating and brittle from exposure to studio chemicals. Many of my favorite artists such as Jim Dine and Ed Ruscha have printed at Tamarind and their prints were on the wall and their presence was felt on the day of the tour.

The tour began with the group watching a 1973 documentary film “Four Stones for Kanemitsu” detailing the collaboration between artist Matsumi Kanemitsu and Master Printer Serge Lozingot as they create and print a four-color lithograph. Best of all, was the delight of seeing in the film– co-star, conservator and colleague Betty Fiske. Betty was curator at Tamarind at the time of the filming and she spoke to the process of creating the documentation sheet that records the materials and techniques used to create each edition. By the way these documentation sheets are in the process of being scanned and will soon be available as PDFs for collectors.

The tour continued to the print studio filled with presses, shelves of rollers, inks, and litho stones. A print of an owl was being pulled by MFA students in the apprentice program. The smell of ink was wonderful.

Walking across the street to the U of NM Art Museum I participated in the (AIC) tour of the museum. To complete the story, the museum is the repository for the print archive of the Tamarind workshop- housed in their newly renovated print study and storage area.

Debora Mayer

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – ECPN Informational Meeting, May 8

The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) Informational Meeting provided both a great introduction to ECPN and updates on the group’s activities.  Attendees broke out into small discussion groups for second half of the meeting, with ECPN officers facilitating discussions on current initiatives and encouraging feedback and ideas.

At the start of the meeting, the officers whose terms ended over the past year were recognized (Rose Cull, Heather Brown, Amber Kerr-Allison, and Amy Brost).  Two new officers were announced – Gwen Manthey, new Professional Education and Training co-officer and Angela Curmi, new Communications Coordinator.  There are also liaisons in ECPN that work with other AIC committees, geographical regions, and with Canadian emerging conservators (CAC-ECC), and they were introduced.  The officers then gave an update on the key initiatives underway in ECPN: the Mentoring Program, student research platform, outreach through the blog, Facebook, and proposed Forum Calls, and the new PR Toolkit on the AIC wiki.

Then, the attendees broke out into small groups to discuss their thoughts about ECPN’s current programs, and what topics and initiatives are of greatest interest to them.  Here are a few ideas that had broad support at the meeting:

  • Create a quarterly email newsletter (most said that email was the best way to reach them, rather than the blog or Facebook page)
  • Make it clearer how to sign up to be on the ECPN email list
  • Provide more opportunities for ECPN to work on the wiki, perhaps by helping to make content more media-rich (add images, etc)
  • Make the AIC website more user-friendly, and send ideas to the AIC website task force
  • Broad support for the student research platform, and interest in contributing content.  Everyone really liked the idea of a student research platform which could function as a central location for finding all student research. Many were comfortable with the idea of submitting and seeking out either abstracts or full-length papers. If abstract form was selected, including the author’s contact information so the researcher could potentially ask them for more information was preferred.
  • Would like to see ECPN help with centralizing conservation education programs, employment opportunities, internship and fellowship announcements, and help with identifying potential funding sources for post-graduate internships
  • Help identifying possible internship and fellowship opportunities in private practices
  • Increase professional development opportunities, ie, distance (web-based) learning, short-term internships, etc.
  • Consider the needs of international pre-program interns and students, perhaps with online resources for them
  • Interest in a LinkedIn group for ECPN
  • Enthusiastic about the new Forum Calls to begin in 2012

The next regular ECPN meeting will take place via conference call on Monday, June 18 at 1 pm ET.  For more information, visit the ECPN page on the AIC website.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Frederick Hammersley: An Artist’s Documentation of His Painting Practice” by Alan Phenix

Pacific Standard Time is not just a time zone.  It is also the title of a Getty-funded initiative, jointly launched by the Getty Foundation and Getty Research Institute, that enabled more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California to tell the story of the art scene in Los Angeles, California.  The initiative focuses on archives, research, exhibitions, publications, and other programs to record the region’s artistic history.  A substantial part of the project is dedicated to Los Angeles art from post-World War II through the 1970s.  In 2011/2012 The Getty Center held an exhibition entitled Crosscurrents in L.A. Painting and Sculpture, 1950-1970.  One of the artists in the show was the painter Frederick Hammersley, who died in 2009.  After Hammersley’s death a artist-endowed Foundation was established to preserve and maintain his artistic legacy.  Getty researchers first encountered the extensive archive of materials held by the Hammersley Foundation during preparations for the Crosscurrents show.  Alan Phenix presented to the Paintings Specialty Group some introductory observations on the wealth of that information.

Frederick Hammersley was a leading abstract painter in Southern California in the postwar period.  He first gained widespread notoriety in 1956 when he was included with artists Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, and John McLaughlin in an exhibition entitled Four Abstract Classicists.  The show led to the coining of the painting movement known as “West Coast Hard-Edge”.  Hammersley was born in 1919 and studied art in the 1940s at the Chouinard and Jepson Art Institutes in Los Angeles.  He stayed on at the Jepson Institute in a teaching capacity after he finished his studies.  He also held subsequent teaching positions at Pomona College (1953-62), Pasadena Art Museum (1956-61), and Chouinard (1964-68).  In 1968 he took a teaching position at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, which he kept until 1971 when he stopped teaching to concentrate on his painting.  He continued to work at his home studio until six months before his death and his space remained essentially untouched after his death, serving as final documentation of his life and work.  Hammersley had also fastidiously documented his artistic process in series of notebooks for a period of more than 50 years with few interruptions.  Among the most notable of these were four “Painting Books” that consist of cumulative and descriptive chronological lists of works completed.  The project being undertaken by the Getty Conservation Institute aims to examine and interpret that archive of materials for what it may reveal about Hammersley’s process, materials and techniques, and what it might mean for the preservation and conservation of his work.

Hammersley’s painting had a strong psychological element, which is illustrated in the evolution of his work.  From 1954 to 1959 he worked on a series he called “Hunch” paintings, which developed without preparation as the artist relied on “hunches” coming from reflection and intuition to guide his work.  In 1963 until 1965 he worked on series defined as “Organics” and “Cut Ups” that expanded upon his intuitive painting with more organic processes.  In several periods throughout his career he also worked on more hard-edged geometric paintings.  An early instance of his documentation and creative evolution was found in a set of notes on labels on the back of a 1956 “Hunch” painting entitled In Front Of, in which he recorded dates for the addition of specific shapes in the composition.

The artist began keeping his “Painting Books” in 1959, wherein he kept lists of his work, information about his process, when and to whom each work was sold, and other related information.  The details of his records continued to increase and by 1966 he’d expanded his notes to include additional items, such as information on specific paints.

It was interesting to hear that Hammersley’s documentation was not limited to formal records and itemized lists; his notebooks were also works of art in their own way.  Some of his books contained visual composition ideas in thumbnail sketches.  When he liked a composition he would execute it in a slightly larger (ca. 3″ x 3″) format.  Eventually he began including sequential breakdowns of the development of particular artworks.  On occasion he would revisit past artworks and those changes were also documented in his notebooks.  The artistic process was not limited to the works themselves.  Hammersley kept a “Titles” folder that contained lists of words written by free association.  When he came across words he liked he would underline them and then retrofit them to create titles for particular works.

This presentation just scratched the surface of the available information in Hammersley’s personal documentation.  The goal of the Getty Conservation Institute’s work is to make the mass of information of Hammersley’s archive available to a wider audience, including conservators who may have cause to work on his paintings in the future.  A searchable database is envisaged once the material is transcribed, collated, and interpreted.

This year’s annual meeting was focused on connecting to conservation through outreach and advocacy.  A searchable database of artists’ materials and techniques certainly has potential to assist with that effort.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Relating Artist Technique and Materials to Condition in Richard Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park’ Series” by Ana Alba

When Ana Alba was working at the Hirshhorn Museum she undertook a research project on four paintings from Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series.  Her study compared the materials used in each of the paintings and assessed how that tied in to their current condition.  She presented her findings at the 2010 annual meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Two of the paintings had severe cracking while the other two were in good condition; the paintings with the cracking had an acrylic preparatory layer.  At this year’s annual meeting she presented research conducted at the National Gallery of Art that expanded upon her intial study.

Ana’s current research involved the examination of more than 45 paintings and samples for analysis were collected from approximately 15 paintings.  All of the information gathered was compiled into an extensive chronological database.  An additional list of travel histories with photographic references was completed.  The results of this study showed changes in the artists materials both between paintings and within individual works.

Diebenkorn worked for weeks to years on some of his paintings.  He painted consistently on unsized cotton duck but his choice of preparatory materials fluctuated over time.  Between 1968 and 1973 he used white acrylic gesso and toned it with diluted acrylic.  In some cases he added alkyd.  From 1973 to 1978 he transitioned from white to clear preparatory layers, presumably in order to maintain the raw canvas color and achieve transparencies in his paint layers.  Scientific analysis suggested the clear material was synthetic and consistent with Rhoplex AC-33.  This was more or less confirmed by photographic evidence of showing large jugs labeled as Rhoplex located in the artist’s studio.  By 1979 Diebenkorn had returned to using acrylic gesso almost exclusively.

Diebenkorn primarily painted with acrylics and alkyds.  He added oils sparingly and extended his paints as far as possible.  He also used charcoal, graphite, and colored pencil to define his images.  Infrared reflectography of his paintings show numerous alterations in his compositions, which is unsurprising given his appreciation of layering and the amount of time he spent working on each piece.  Once a painting was finished he applied matte fixative to the surface.  In his early works he applied this in 6 or 8 consecutive layers that left a glassy, heavy surface.  Eventually he shifted his process and masked out the painting to limit application to the charcoal areas.

The condition assessment of this larger group of paintings seem to support the findings of Ana’s initial study.  Paintings executed between 1960 and 1973 vary and some show some cracking.  The cracks follow drawn lines, compositional changes, and are greatest on the paintings with heavy layers.  Paintings completed after 1973 and before 1980 have heavier, more pronounced cracking with broad and isolated areas of cupping.  These paintings follow the same trend as the earlier works with the greatest cracking located in the layered areas.  Diebenkorn’s paintings after 1980 are in much more pristine condition with less cracks.  The trend of this condition timeline show that the paintings in the poorest condition are located in the middle of the Ocean Park series.  This supports previous findings by showing that paintings with Rhoplex and acrylic exhibit the worst cracking, especially when they are painted thickly with numerous layers.

This study highlights concerns regarding some of Diebenkorn’s selection of materials.  Alkyds are brittle so putting them over flexible preparatory films and unsized canvas makes them susceptible to cracking from impacts and physical movement of the substrate.  Fortunately, they do not seem prone to delamination so the cracking does not lead to significant paint loss.  In addition, when Diebenkorn diluted his materials he reduced their strength.  That left them with a greater chance of deformation in response to physical and environmental factors.

Ana pointed out that there are some limiting and extenuating factors to consider in this research.  The are as follows:

  • No samples were taken from privately owned paintings.
  • His assistants did not see him working so they could not provide information about his process
  • Diebenkorn did not keep detailed records of his work or do preparatory drawings.
  • The study compares paintings in good and poor condition only.
  • The artist destroyed some works, painted over others, and skipped #5 when creating the series.
  • One large painting from Brooklyn was an outlier in the study; it was completed prior to 1973 but it shows significant cracking across large ares of the surface.
During the question and answer session following the presentation it was also noted that areas with Rhoplex on raw canvas showed discoloration.
I have a personal appreciation for Diebenkorn’s work and have enjoyed following the progression of Ana’s research project.  By coincidence, I had the opportunity to realize that interest in person this week when the exhibition, Richard Diebenkorn:  The Ocean Park Series, was deinstalled at the Orange County Museum of Art in California.  I conducted outgoing condition assessments of some of the paintings and was able to see exactly what Ana had discussed in her presentation.  The exhibition will open at its final destination, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, on June 30th.  I encourage all of you to check out the show if possible to see the subjects of Ana’s research side by side for the first time on such a large scale.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Print or Painting? The Treatment of a Penschilderij by Willem van de Velde the Elder” by Kristin deGhetaldi

Penschilderijn*, also known as “penpaintings“, involve drawing an image in black ink on top of a substrate prepared with a white lead oil ground.  The technique originated in seventeenth century Holland and was popularized by one of its most skilled practitioners, Willem van de Velde the Elder.  The artist’s painting, Dutch Ships Near the Coast, became the first penschilderij in an American public collection when it was gifted to the National Gallery of Art in 1994.  Treatment of the painting began in 2010, which gave conservators the rare opportunity to conduct an in-depth study of the materials and techniques utilized in its creation.  Kristin deGhetaldi headed the treatment of the painting and presented the current study findings and treatment results to the Paintings Specialty Group.

Willem van de Velde the Elder built his career on pen paintings but his beginnings were much more humble.  He was born in 1611 as the son of a skipper and spent most of his early years on ships, giving him a natural familiarity with navigation and the sea.  He was also an excellent draughtsman and became skilled at sketching maritime scenes.  As his skill improved he was sought for victory images and his clientele of wealthy patrons increased.  He gained significant notoriety with his penpaintings as early as the end of the 1630s and it was said that his penschilderij were considered more popular and valuable than his other works.

Penpaintings were often done on panel or vellum primed with oil.  Working atop these surfaces with pen and ink made it difficult to make corrections to the composition.  Van de Velde was a perfectionist who was easily dissatisfied with the quality of his work.  If he did not like a sketch he would go over the basic outline in wet ink and quickly press the image to another substrate and begin again.  He also utilized both fine line drawing and washes to create his images, with washes becoming more prominent in his work by the 1650s.  Washes provided the advantage of covering large areas quickly without the need for intricate underdrawings.  This allowed the van de Velde workshop to generate larger penpaintings at a faster rate in order to meet teh demands of the market.

A visual analysis of Dutch Ships Near the Coast was conducted in comparison to van de Veldes other known works and some characteristics stood out.  Although it is dated to the 1650s, the work is smaller than his other penpaintings and it lacks the expected fluid washes in favor of fine linear strokes.  The penpainting does have an underdrawing, though it remains unclear whether it was sketched in silverpoint or graphite.  In addition, the ground layer composed of calcium carbonate instead of the slightly darker ground that is common in his similar works.  Finally, unique raised lines are present where the ink is applied and in other areas of the white ground.

Scientific analysis was conducted in an attempt to clarify some of these discrepancies.  Cross-sectional microscopy revealed two layers of lead white, with the topmost layer containing particles that were more finely ground.  The presence of only carbon black in the ink design confirmed that iron gall ink or bone black was not used by the artist.  Analysis using GCMS was conducted in an attempt to identify the binding medium of the ink, though the tests were inconclusive.

Conservators decided to create a reconstruction of the penpainting to gain insight into the identity of the oil binder and find possible causes for the raised lines.  Linseed oil was used in the reconstruction but it yellowed quickly, leading conservators to believe a slower drying oil was used in order to avoid the discoloration.  Next conservators tested reed and quill pens dipped in gum based ink to determine how the ink was likely applied.  Reed seemed like a good candidate but they produced broader and less precise lines than the sharp, fine lines created with quills.  Goose quills were ideal but quills from raven and crow feathers were also acceptable.  It was hypothesized that the sharp quills may have scratched the ground before it was totally dry and created the fine lines.  However, that did not account for the raised nature of the lines or the fact that they existed in areas where ink was not applied.  At that point conservators wondered if the lines could be the result of engraving techniques.

The Dutch artist Experiens Sillemans was a contemporary of van de Velde and also created penschilderijn.  Sillemans was known to use printmaking practices such as engraving in the creation of his works.  The technique involved pressing a freshly inked engraving on to a primed support.  To create raised lines, however, van de Velde would have had to press his inked copper plate into the soft preparatory ground of the support.  Given the art historical evidence, it still seems unlikely that van de Velde used this practice as no two of his penschilderij are alike.  In addition, there are no prints in his oeuvre to suggest he was a practiced engraver.

Ultimately the technical study of Dutch Ships Near the Coast left more questions than answers and conservators are hopeful that future study will lead to greater understanding.  At that point it was time to address the treatment of the piece.

Examination of the painting revealed fills and overpaint, discoloration, flaking, and crumbling around the fills.  The abraded surface was almost ghost-like in some areas and the face of one man in the foreground was completely lost.  The painting was stabilized using sturgeon glue.  During removal of the varnish layers, Kristin did not have to worry about solubility issues.**  Once the painting was given an isolation layer of MS2A varnish, losses were filled using a mixture of Aquazol 200 and Modostuc.  To begin the inpainting process Kristin  isolated the painting with MS2A and then used pigmented micropens under magnification to conduct a painstaking recreation of the abraded areas.  The damaged background was reinforced with thin HB micro graphite sticks.

A question and answer session followed Kristin’s presentation and someone asked what additional theories she may have regarding the cause of the fine lines.  Kristin said she has a few weak theories.  One theory is that the penpainting was put in the sun to bleach and dry, during which time the black ink may have absorbed more heat and created the lines.  Her second theory was that a slower drying oil like walnut or poppy may have left the grounds soft and created uneven drying which could have led to the raised lines.  She stressed that more study is necessary.

I thought this was a very interesting presentation and look forward to hearing about future developments in the study of Willem van de Velde’s penschilderij.



* A past study by David Freedberg, Aviva Burnstock, and Alan Phenix refer to these works as penschilderijen.  Since I am not fluent in dutch, nor an expert on penpainting, I deferred to the spelling used by Kristin deGhetaldi.

** The question of solubility was raised during the question and answer session, to which Kristin replied she detected absolutely no solubility issues in the materials of the penpainting, especially since the painting had already been subjected to harsh overcleaning in the past.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting – Paintings Session, May 9, “Treatment of Izhar Patkin’s ‘The Black Paintings’–Collaboration and Compromise” by Jennifer Hickey

Israeli-American artist Izhar Patkin’s work combines traditional painting and sculpture with nontraditional techniques.  In 1986 he completed his work, The Black Paintingsa series of twenty-two pleated neoprene panels painted with images based on Jean Genet’s play, “The Blacks: A clown show.”  The 14′ long panels hang side by side to create a 28′ x 22′ installation.  Recently, the sculpture and painting conservation departments at the Museum of Modern Art in New York collaborated to address the treatment of this work.  Jennifer Hickey presented the challenges, philosophy, and compromises of the project to the Paintings Specialty Group.

When conservators took on The Black Paintings they were met with a host of interesting challenges.  The first set of issues had to do with the materials.  Neoprene is a stable synthetic rubber that maintains its flexibility over time and wide temperature variations.  It is not an ideal substrate for painting because of its flexibility and the size and weight of each panel exacerbated that problem.  The artist was aware of those issues and used spray paint and vinyl paint under the assumption that the spray paint would crack while the vinyl paint would remain flexible.  Unfortunately, the expected interactions of the materials proved false as the entire painted surface cracked and flaked with the stretch of the neoprene.  The cracking and losses were compounded by the handling required to deinstall and reinstall the panels each time they were exhibited.

The physical incompatibility of the neoprene and paint media was not the only problem.  Neoprene is often coated with a talcum-based release agent to keep it from being sticky.  The application of the talc leaves a hazy gray surface that the artist liked so he painted on it without removing the coating or preparing the surface with another material.  Therefore, the release agent that kept the neoprene from being sticky also acted as a release agent for the paint media.

Conservators were also faced with challenges that went beyond the materials.  Izhar Patkin is a living, working artist so conservators were able to consult him during the assessment and planning stages of the project.  This may sound like a blessing if we consider all the times we’ve wished for input on a complicated project from its creator.  However, it can be a double-edged sword and that was the case with The Black Paintings.

As previously mentioned, Patkin was aware that the painted surfaces would deteriorate and enjoyed the nonstatic idea it presented.  He chose his materials to encourage that deterioration and scratched into the paint to initiate the process.  He also appreciated how the heat of the installation space intensified the smell of the neoprene.  Perhaps it was serendipitous that such heat adds to the risk of instability in paint films.  Conversations with the artist allowed conservators to understand where he’d intended damage and deterioration, which guided their treatment decisions.  At the same time they ran into complications during their discussions.  For example, the artist and conservators used the word “craquelure” to describe different phenomena and the conservators had to contend with impractical suggestions from the artist.

In the end the treatment of The Black Paintings was limited to triage with the understanding that maintenance treatment will be required each time the panels are unrolled.  Conservators designed a cleaning system that accounted for the sensitivities of the solvent based paints and avoided heat, which could have compromised the rubber.  The panels were hung and then gradually lowered to a table for access, at which point they were cautiously dry cleaned and a very time consuming consolidation was undertaken using an acrylic emulsion adhesive.  An old interleaving was replaced with finely woven undyed cotton and permanent cleats were secured to the tops of each panel.  At that point the panels were rerolled and stored.  A manual was prepared to instruct all individuals on the proper handling during all future installations and deinstallations.

This was a very complicated project that illustrated many of the issues that arise when dealing with modern and contemporary artworks and the involvement of a living artist.  A question and answer session following the presentation continued to highlight the gray areas surrounding these kinds of treatments.

One conservator asked Ms. Hickey why they chose to roll the panels with the paint side facing inward rather than out because of the added risk it posed to the already unstable paint.  Ms. Hickey explained that the size and weight of the panels necessitated this compromise because they were too large and heavy to flip over once the panel was unrolled.  Rolling them in this way may risk the paint but significantly reduced the level of handling and resulting unavoidable losses.

A second question posed to Ms. Hickey was whether or not they thought of alternatives to the permanent cleats because rolling the paintings with the cleats creates a risk.  When Ms. Hickey explained that the budget of the project would not allow other preferable but more expensive alternatives she was asked if they considered the fact that additional costs at present could maintain value in the piece and curtail future treatment costs.  Ms. Hickey addressed this question with great poise by reminding us all that conservators do not always have the final say when it comes to the cost of a treatment and sometimes we must find the best compromise available within our limitations.

This was an excellent presentation and I hope it will lead to continued discussions regarding the issues that arise in these kinds of complicated projects.

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting (2012): The Great Debate – Part II

If you read the previous Great Debate Part I post feel free to skip this introduction and jump down to the meat of the post, the team’s statements below,…

Kudos go to Richard McCoy, Conservator of Objects & Variable Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for instigating and moderating the first Great Debate at the AIC 2012 Annual Meeting.  This session consisted of two Oxford-Style Debate sessions of 30 minutes each on a chosen topic.  Each debate session consisted of initial presentations from each team, then members of the audience were allowed to ask questions and each debate team was given time to respond, followed by closing arguments.  Before the debate the audience was polled by a show of hands on who agreed or disagreed with the statement.  After the debate the audience was asked whose opinions were swayed so that a winning team could be chosen.  This method for choosing a winner elicited some amusing debate in and of itself with Richard exclaiming in mock exasperation “You are supposed to debate each other – not me!”

This dry introduction doesn’t represent the fun and excitement that ensued during the actual debate.  I can’t remember any sessions at previous AIC meetings that elicited raucous laughter, huge applause, and cheers and boos from the crowded room.  Richard projected a huge stopwatch on the screen to time the statements and I can only imagine how nervous it made the debaters because it got my pulse racing just watching it!  Richard was very clear that debaters were chosen for their willingness to participate and were not necessarily representing their personal views on the topics.  This was notably pointed out in a “gotcha” moment when the Affirmative team asked Negative Team member Hugh Shockey if he would be willing to go without the fabulous microscope stand donated by a tour visitor!

The participants must be complemented on their willingness to put themselves forward and get into the spirit with a bit of trash talking and theatrics (Hugh’s dark glasses and Richard’s big (read geeky) floppy bow tie.  I think this exemplified that it is possible to debate topics of real importance within our profession and professional society without rancor or taking ourselves too seriously. This session was clearly a crowd favorite and I hope it will be repeated at future meetings.    Below is the statement for the second debate topic and text or talking points from the two teams.  The second debate will be included in a separate post.  Please feel free to weigh in yourself by commenting here on the blog.

TOPIC #2: Having conservators perform treatments in the gallery is the most successful way to generate funding for museums and raise awareness about the profession

For the affirmative:

  • Vanessa Muros
  • Camille Breeze
  • Kristen Adsit

 Opening Statement:

Obviously having conservators perform treatments in the public eye is the best way to raise awareness of the profession and funds for an institution.

These exhibitions cause more people to visit the institution.  In 2006 before they started performing in-gallery treatments, the UK conservation nonprofit National Trust had 35,000 annual visitors.  6 years into a campaign to prioritize in-gallery treatments whenever possible, they now average 72,000, an over 50% increase in visitorship.

In-gallery treatment gets the undivided attention of visitors, and engage people more fully than is possible with other outreach methods. The interpersonal interaction with a conservator is also more impactful than a more mediated method of outreach, such as videos or publications.

In-gallery treatments demystify the role of the professional conservator and the process of caring for our cultural heritage. Even other workers inside the institution can understand the role of the conservator in a new way when they are able to witness a treatment in process, as paintings conservators at the Indianapolis Museum of Art pointed out after their 2009 in-gallery treatment of Sebastiano Mainardi’s 1507 altarpiece.

These interventions further generate public interest through increased press coverage of such treatments. According to Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss, the lead conservator of the National Museum of American History’s public treatment of the Star Spangled Banner, that project generated more than 1,500 clips in national and international newspapers, radio and TV.

This is a great way to showcase the complexity and centrality of the conservators role in the museum.  Once you have engaged an audience, you have the opportunity to create a complete and nuanced understanding of our work.  However you will only get that chance if you first have their attention, and the best way to get that attention is by performing in-gallery treatments.

Public conservation treatments directly generate funds for the museum.

  • A great example of this comes from this year’s Angels project at the San Miguel chapel in Santa Fe. The project manager Jake told me of a donor who both gave money and volunteered his time as a direct result of seeing the restoration work that was already taking place.
  • As our opponent Hugh Shockey should know, the first fellowship at the Lunder Center was funded by a donor who saw Amber Kerr-Allison treating a painting

Giving to support in-gallery treatments amounts to more bang for your buck.  It not only enables a specific conservation intervention to be performed, but it also amounts to funding for education and outreach.

This can generate goodwill within the conservator’s institution since other departments such as education and marketing also benefit from the in-gallery treatment project.  That kind of goodwill can help enable the Conservation department to achieve other goals.

In-gallery treatments demonstrate that funding for conservation is a good return on investment. By showing the painstaking process of treatment, documentation and outreach, it demonstrates to the viewer that we’re multifaceted professionals who much be resourceful, and why treatment can take so much time.

And the results of your donation are tangible, which further engages donor and allows some ownership of their donation and the project

Honestly, how can they argue against this? What else could be more effective at raising awareness of the profession than showing and talking to people about what we do?  What other means of giving benefits the donor and the institution more?


For the negative:

  • Suzanne Davis
  • Hugh Shockey
  • Sharra Grow

Opening Statement:

Having conservators perform treatments in the gallery is NOT the most successful way to generate funding for museums and raise awareness about the profession.


  • The quality of treatment done on site is never the same as that done in the lab, therefore, conservation is at a disadvantage at representing itself in the galleries.
  • What kind of awareness do we want the visiting audience to have?
  • By treating artwork in the gallery, visitors have a skewed understating of where/how conservation is done, taken out of the context of the studio/lab where all needed supplies and conditions are provided for the best treatment… for example, working away from the organization of the lab presents treatment as disorganized and haphazard as it requires frequent shuttling of tools and materials not originally anticipated for conducting treatment
  • The experience and perception of each visitor is dependent on interaction with the conservator leaving accurate understanding of the treatment outside the conservator’s control if the visitor chooses not to interact. Seeing a work mid-treatment denies the visitor the opportunity to experience it as intended by the maker. Without a full understanding of what they are seeing, they can question the stewardship of the museum in caring for its collection.
  • The stress of managing treatment and public interaction necessarily creates a distraction, which misrepresents treatment protocol, and neither treatment nor public interaction are done to the best of the conservator’s ability.

Further, we would ask; who is the target audience when doing treatment in the gallery?

  •  Conservation on display in the galleries cannot generate awareness on its own without addition publicity channels, as visitation to the museum is already limited to self-selected patrons, thus negating the idea that conservation in the galleries is what generates awareness.
  • In addition, the giving potential of the visiting public is limited and is therefore not an ideal source of fundraising, as it is widely understood that wealthy individual patrons are more capable of supporting the expensive endeavor of conservation. And public display minimizes the incentive for higher level donors seeking exclusive access and experience in the museum.

Today we are not debating whether or not treatment in the galleries may be a nice idea and possibly worth pursuing. We are arguing whether or not performing treatments in the gallery is the most successful way to (1) generate funding and (2) raise awareness about the profession. Our points clearly show above that it is NOT.


As with the first topic, the majority of the room’s packed audience agreed with the Negative Team when polled before the debate.  Yet once again, the Affirmative Team won the debate as the “after” poll showed that they convinced more people to change their opinion.  I did ask a question of the debaters and and said that I personally am not sure whether in gallery treatments are the “best” way but every institution I’ve worked out brought their big ticket donors into the lab for VIP tours so it seems to me that Development Officers find what we do to be compelling at bringing in the funds!  The Negative team nimbly stepped around my question and answered the question that they wanted to answer!  But I must admit that I love working in the gallery and interacting with the public.  I find that some visitors are very insightful and knowledgeable and others ask questions that are completely inane.  It is a good reminder that we have lots of audiences at any given museum or site and that we have to figure out ways to serve them and the collections.   Have you worked in a visible conservation lab or done in gallery treatments? Let us know about your experiences!

AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting (2012): The Great Debate – Part I

Kudos go to Richard McCoy, Conservator of Objects & Variable Art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for instigating and moderating the first Great Debate at the AIC 2012 Annual Meeting.  This session consisted of two Oxford-Style Debate sessions of 30 minutes each on a chosen topic.  Each debate session consisted of initial presentations from the teams lasting for five minutes.  Members of the audience were then allowed to ask questions and each debate team was given time to respond. Then each team gave closing arguments for an additional five minutes.  Richard was very clear that debaters were chosen for their willingness to participate and were not necessarily representing their personal views on the topics.  And, clearly the topics were chosen and worded to be provocative! Before the debate the audience was polled by a show of hands on who agreed or disagreed with the statement.  After the debate the audience was asked whose opinions were swayed so that a winning team could be chosen.

This dry introduction doesn’t represent the fun and excitement that ensued during the actual debate.  I can’t remember any sessions at previous AIC meetings that elicited raucous laughter, huge applause, and cheers and boos from the crowded room.  Richard projected a huge stopwatch on the screen to time the statements and I can only imagine how nervous it made the debaters because it got my pulse racing just watching it!  When Paul Messier’s iPad froze during his opening statement my heart lept to my mouth and his off the cuff comment became part of the drama.

The participants must be complemented on their willingness to put themselves forward and get into the spirit with a bit of trash talking and theatrics all in good fun.  I think this demonstrated that it is possible to debate topics of real importance within our professional society without rancor or taking ourselves too seriously. This session was clearly a crowd favorite and I hope it will be repeated at future meetings.    Below is the statement for the first debate topic and text or talking points from the two teams.  The second debate will be included in a separate post.  Please feel free to weigh yourself by commenting here on the blog.

TOPIC #1:  Publishing accurate and complete “how-to guides” for conservation and restoration treatments online is the best way for us to care for cultural heritage in the 21st century.

For the affirmative:

  • Paul Messier
  • Karen Pavelka
  • Mary Striegel

Opening Statements

As our colleagues on the other side will no doubt point out, you can’t teach conservation using new digital technologies, like say, the internet.  What they mean, of course, is that you can’t teach conservation treatment.  And if you choose to focus on treatment as the defining attribute of our profession then my team has powerful arguments in store.  But of course the field is more than treatment.  The keywords we should all focus on are:

  • Publish
  • Guides
  • Cultural Heritage
  • Best

Publish: We in conservation, especially those of us privileged with something worth sharing, have a professional obligation to communicate that knowledge.  Publishing online has tremendous advantages in terms of cost, environmental sustainability and the ability to immediately reach people globally.

Guides: What’s a guide? A guide is not a rote set of formulas and solutions.  A guide is just that: It provides information helpful to formulating a solution, for treatment issues and beyond. A guide is patently not prescriptive. Guides promote thinking.  Guides do not shut it down.

Cultural Heritage: As conservators we have an obligation to look beyond our own immediate challenges and confront some of our own biases.  The world is a big place and again, we who have the privilege of educations developed through internships and academic training don’t want to be in a position of saying to the world “you have to do it our way.”  Instead we need to break through educational, ethnic, economic, religious barriers to effectively serve material culture and reach those with the courage to stand up and defend it.

“Best”:  Best does not mean “only.” Of course there will always be a place for “traditional” conservation education.  But if you are serious about your ethical obligation to do the most good for the greatest number of objects then you must get serious about moving content online.

Conservation Online has roughly 10,000 subscribers in 92 countries.  In his remarkable career of graduate school training Dan Kushel has had, give or take, 340 students — from a handful of countries.  It’s great that these fortunate students were able to command such lavish resources.  But is that realistic for needs of cultural heritage globally? We can and should do more.

Announcing EDX a new joint venture to put MIT and Harvard courses online, MIT president Susan Hockfield said “you can choose to view this era as one of threatening change and unsettling volatility, or you can see it as a moment charged with the most exciting possibilities presented to educators in our lifetimes.”

Like MIT and Harvard, we cannot afford nostalgia for the way we were trained to cloud our vision for the future.

For the negative:

  • Victoria Montana Ryan
  • Scott Carrlee
  • Matthew Skopek

Opening Statement

Publishing accurate and complete.” With best practices constantly evolving how quickly will complete and accurate be incomplete, inaccurate, and obsolete?  Online “how-to-treatment-guides” could become the 8-track tapes of conservation that AIC would need to maintain – maybe of interest historically but no one would use.  Technology moves fast and keeping up with changes demands time. Our esteemed colleagues might well argue that an online format would be the easiest to enable quick updates.

Quick and easy doesn’t necessarily mean accurate and complete and current mechanisms for publishing a complete and accurate online “how-to guide” can sometimes be difficult.  Publishing a peer-reviewed article is very different from throwing something up on a blog. Well researched publications are already currently available in a variety of formats – what does an online “how-to-treatment-guide” really contribute?  Let us consider return on investment. A recent article by Adrian Ellis, published in the winter 2012 edition of Grantmakers in the Arts, notes stresses placed on organizations when there is a mismatch between expectations and capacity. This could easily apply to AIC if we were to be constantly trying to update “how-to-guides”.  With limited resources what would the return on the investment be?

What if accurate and complete “best practices” include methods, materials, equipment, etc. that are beyond the reach of most members – will their businesses be hurt by owners whose expectations may be too great? Will owners insist on pursuing actions that may be neither feasible nor necessary, thus leading to increased costs and ultimately have a net result of actually reducing conservation treatments? Another problem with online “how-to-treatment-guides” is there is no one there to answer questions that arise or to provide insights or warnings if one goes astray.  There is often difficulty in translating what one reads or hears into correct action – and is always subject to misinterpretation.  Given the many variables of conservation treatments such guides may be a useful adjunct in teaching arenas but is no substitution for hands-on teaching.

“Best way for us to care for cultural heritage in 21st century”  Really? A “how-to guide” for the 21st century? Such a guide seems so 19th century, rather irrelevant.  How-to guides might have been fine when the paradigm was scarcity of available information but now we have an abundance (overload) of information.  We (AIC) should not be trying to produce or police “how-to treatment-guides” but rather seek to be learned guides, an authoritative voice in the cacaphony of the internet, empowering today’s user with information that discusses the complexities, nuances, judgment and experience that are necessary at every step of conservation.  Today’s consumers of information want to curate their own content and a “how-to-guide” does not cover the why or why-not, the critical thinking, that is vital to the process. We need to show that preservation is relevant, so while informational and educational publications and videos are important they should be geared more toward the thinking process and not treatment recipes. Defining the target audience and creating guides for care, that are less likely to become quickly outdated, may be a better approach to engaging others, in both thought and participation, in the quest to care for cultural heritage in the 21st century.

The central point is that for AIC/The Conservation Profession to be relevant in a web based world, we need to be seen as the source for timely, relevant and  accurate information, but this does not mean how to guides for treatment. 


In the audience poll before the debate there was overwhelming support for the negative position.   From my perspective as AIC’s e-Editor this was not a surprise, but frankly was somewhat disheartening.  I was pleasantly surprised that whether due to reason or impassioned delivery,  it was the Affirmative Team who managed to sway more people to their side when the poll was repeated after the debate concluded.  While this was clearly still a minority view, it showed that there are compelling reasons for us to be putting our material online. Congratulations to all involved.