What training is needed to be a painting conservator?
A professional conservator will have completed a rigorous, specialist course of study and practical work with an accredited post-graduate institution, followed by a period of work with more experienced conservators. Safe conservation requires knowledge of the history, composition and behaviour of artists' materials, art history and chemistry, as well as the techniques for examining, stabilising and repairing paintings. A commitment to the modern conservation principles of minimal intervention and the reversibility of treatments is essential. Conservation and repairs should consist of what is necessary to make paintings suitable for display, or stable for storage.
What can I expect from a paintings conservator?
A conservator should always ask to see your painting in person before giving an opinion about its condition or an estimate for the cost of treatment. An opinion based on a photograph alone may not be a full or accurate assessment of its true condition. The practitioner will examine a painting thoroughly and, in some cases, may recommend that technical assessment such as an x-ray or infrared photograph would be helpful. Examination of your painting complete you should receive, in writing, the following:-
a detailed description of its condition
recommendations for required treatment, if any
an estimate of costs involved
A choice of treatments may be described, with a list of the costs involved with each option [see here for an explanation of technical terms]. Conservators will be happy to discuss the options and explain each treatment. A good practitioner has no need for secrecy and will not refuse to explain their recommendations or insist that treatments are a 'trade secret'.
Gerald Trottier Maquette for 'Carleton' mosaic (1961), detail, private coll.
Are conservation & restoration the same?
Broadly speaking, the terms are interchangeable. In practice, restoration treatment repairs damage, while conservation concentrates on stabilising and protecting a work of art. The trained conservator is involved in both stabilising and repairing, but always according to scientific principles and professional ethics.
How long will treatment take?
Each painting is a unique, complex mixture of organic and inorganic materials which age and decay in different ways. An added complication are the materials that have been added over the years, including dirt, varnishes, soot, fly spots, food and old repairs. Generally speaking, the more damaged or fragile a painting is the longer treatment will take. The size of the picture will also affect the time needed.
Is an estimate binding?
A conservator will supply you with a written estimate indicating the number of hours each treatment should take to complete. It must also state clearly the hourly or daily rate to be charged. The estimate provides, in good faith, a reasonable indication of the cost involved based on the examination and condition report. Bear in mind, however, that paintings are complex structures and unforeseen complications may come to light once treatment has started. Once work is underway, the conservator should keep you informed about its progress - including any new complications and how that will affect the cost.
Will there be a record of treatment?
The conservator should provide a written record outlining:-
treatments carried out
The length and level of detail in the report may depend on the scale and complexity of the project and the requirements of the owner. If an insurance claim is being made to recover the cost, for example, a high level of detail may be required by the insurer.