Liquifying Paint

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A painting made (and sold) in 2000 recently came in to my studio. It was a contemporary oil on canvas.

This year – 2014 – the paint had started to ‘liquify‘ – rivulets of paint running down the surface of the image.

It was an oil painting which, according to the artist, the paint had not been modified in any way – added to or overly thinned.

The paint layer is heavy impasto and the paints fairly unmixed so this bearing out the artists statement. The top white paint layer – probably Titanium White -was the layer undergoing liquefaction.

A quick recap:- oil paint takes about a year to ‘dry’ (which is why varnish should not be applied during this drying period as it will be imbibed into the surface). The drying process is complex and undergoes expansion and contraction of the paint layer during this period which is affected by thickness of the paint and application periods.

As the white paint layer was liquifying and running down the painting in some areas was picking up a little pigment from underlying layers, in others a yellow oil layer was visibly seeping out and running down the image.

As an experienced Conservator of Paintings and dealing with all aged paint layers ancient and modern (and knowing how paint is made commercially) I have never seen anything like this.

My first reaction was the artist must have added something to the paint – a non drying oil? and why should this begin to happen after 14 years?

A recent 2014 conference ‘Modern Conservation: What’s New?’ (not much actually)  revealed Danish Conservators were dealing with this recent phenomena in four paintings made between 1990-2005 by van Hemert and Tal-R

We are it seems at the beginning of a crisis and one which will affect modern paint materials in the age of health & safety and profit margins.
Lead Acetate is added to commercial artists paints as a drier. Paint manufacturers have since the 1980′s been removing such lead soaps from paints. Manufacturers hold their secrets close so finding out what they are replacing lead soaps with is something is yet to be learned.

Manufacturers have also been adding non-drying oils to the paint such as safflower and sunflower oil. It is much cheaper than that beautiful liquid gold Linseed oil, used in oil paints since oil painting began in the 15th century.
Non drying oils are just that, they do not dry. Probably these non drying oils have been heat modified and additives incorporated into formulations to encourage them to dry and enable them to formulate a paint layer.

Age testing has clearly not been part of the process and we are now we are the witnessing this new phenomena of paint layers breaking down and liquifying because of untested materials, health and safety measures and no doubt short term profit.

Along with Daler Rowney and Schminke artists paint manufacturers other companies have admitted changing formulations.

One Danish artist is taking a paint manufacturer to court over disintegration of his work. The process of litigation will no doubt set standards of proof but ultimately the world of modern art is going to see the ground liquify before its very eyes and there is no way of stopping it.

A get out clause is that artists add and subtract materials to their paints and usually do not record or remember work techniques. I would reckon paint analysis will easily identify any reckless materials.

Implications may also be in the pipeline for household paints, indeed any oil based paint. More to be posted…….

Open letter to ICON – UK Institute of Conservation

Institute of Conservation
1.5 Lafone House
The Leathermarket
Weston Street
London
SE1 3ER

October 23rd 2013

Dear ICON,

This is an open letter about my increasing dissatisfaction with the lack of clarity, direction and membership support ICON is currently reflecting – a complacent reality.

Having been a member of ICON for many years (Accredited 2000; Committee Member of UKIC; Editor for Paintings Section and Chair for a while) I believe that Conservation is a vocation but would like to see active growth towards it becoming a Profession, with a supporting Professional body.

I have supported ICON because I believe it is an organisation representing a group of fairly like-minded people who believe in supporting cultural heritage – in historical, political, economical, scientific and environmental contexts as well as for aesthetics and pleasure.

It has been the privilege of the Conservator to work closely with objects, to understand materials and techniques and ideally to have a voice. Of late I find myself dismayed at the lack of vigour within ICON, it seems to be running on the spot, an office managing the funds of its members in a manner to justify its own ‘Office’ existence with little voice given to the material objects of our concern or the Conservator.

It is costly to be a member of ICON and to be Accredited and I see less and less benefit as a long term practicing Conservator. ICON’s voice is dulled, its intentions seemingly drowning under administration.

I am aware that ICON actively supports training, pursuing lottery funding for placements because that kind of market funding is currently available, however ICON does little to support Conservators after training.

By this I mean that I can see no difference in ICON’s support for people who have invested in formal training and have good (if not great!) qualifications for the job.

ICON supports equally members who have no formal training. Craft skills of this group are probably high on the agenda but appreciating new developments in materials and techniques is of little interest economically, exposure to new developments not actively pursued.

ICON it could be argued, gleans member’s fees at the expense of supporting low-grade practice. How can clients be expected to differentiate a Conservator/Restorer/Studio Practice that has undergone the rigours of formal training and actively keeps up to date with CPD to that of a studio where no one has a formal training qualification and students (often foreign) are employed because they are cheap and sometimes even pay a fee for the experience?

There is no difference in the Accreditation system for people who have trained and those who have trained themselves in the ‘garden shed’.

How are clients to know? What can ICON do?

ICON may argue that details of Accredited practices are listed but if everyone thinks anyone can set up practice anyway what’s the point of qualifications when anyone can do it? If ICON lists a practice then it must be good, qualifications or not, it doesn’t matter!

How can Training courses compete when anyone can set up a studio to work in Conservation/Restoration, charge the same fees and be represented by the same body – ICON?

I feel ICON does not truly support training courses because it is not moving towards Conservation becoming a true profession. We are still at the ‘barber-surgeon’ stage of development. Is this to remain the case? Are we deluding ourselves with talk of Professional Development?

ICON may be in stasis, at best resting on the laurels of having developed Accreditation – rather a while ago now.

On another front ICON presents itself at formal Heritage events.

Does art and culture lie solely within the framework of Heritage Institutions?

There are huge events taking place all over the country from BADA Fairs to Frieze, from local town hall antique & collectors fairs to Country House Fairs and events. Where is ICON? You will not find ICON promoting any outreach there and to this end I think ICON is missing a major market, where many ‘Restorers’ ply their trade whilst potential Clients remain in the shadow of ignorance over what is good practice.

ICON could and should have a presence for Auction houses too, at least be approaching them to discuss Conservation and making presentations to auctioneers and dealers with the case for good practice.

It is an audience and an opportunity for raising awareness of good practice and saving a bit more of our culture from those who want everything to look brand new.

I was hardly surprised last week when the ICON office sent out the flyer about a television production company seeking ‘Restorers’ to bring forth their goods and contacts for a potential television programme.

Did anyone in the ICON read the flyer? Did ICON not think to make a professional approach to the company or provide advice to ‘Restorers’?

Is ICON afraid? Unsure? Or just can’t be bothered about the potential in these developments, seeing it as beyond some remit or other?

When I see the term ‘Restorer’ bandied about like some Holy Grail occupation my heart sinks. A supposed up and coming Professional body – ICON – lets an opportunity to ‘raise the bar’ pass by. The flyer was cast out like a bone to hungry dogs, not a thought given to either consequences or potential.

In this instance the least ICON could have done is be aware of implications for both Client and the ‘Restorer’.

A further note, if I ask about the possibility of decentralising the London office do the hearts of individuals sink?

Rentals in London are exorbitant and it may be something that ICON should be giving active thought to, considering the imminent loss of the Chantry Library for example.

In summary my arguments here are: –

  • Greater representation from ICON for formally trained & qualified Conservators.
  • ICON to actively speak out about the benefits of formal Training qualifications and Training Institutions and to support qualified alumni.
  • ICON to do more outreach to Client bases on a series of levels.
  • ICON to make moves (after nearly 14 years of Accreditation and the Conservation Register) towards a true and legitimate Profession.
  • ICON to consider decentralising its office base in order to support organisations like the Chantry Library. If money is the real issue where can ICON save on costs?

Thank you.

Lucia Scalisi

Conservator of Paintings

Ethiopia

Travelling through Ethiopia in October this year brought me into contact with beautiful scenery, amazing people and contemplating a rich and wondrous cultural history.

It is the land of AL129-1 commonly referred to as ‘Lucy’ aged 3.2 million years, vital statistics female, 1.1meter and an upright standing hominid.
It is also the land of rock hewn Monasteries in the northern Tigre region and wattle and daub churches on the islands and highlands surrounding Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile.

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Dinknesh ‘wondrous one’ (aka Lucy) at the National Muesum, Addis Adaba

Conservation efforts are apparently underway but in a land and continent usually only in the news for its wars, famines and the cult of Ras Tafari later Emperor Haile Selassie, cultural artefacts are not even second place in the pecking order for resources. Often objects are actively removed for purposes of profit, control and undermining a nations cultural wealth and history (see Art Newspaper, Oct 2013 ‘Restitution begins at home’ – no.9)

I did glean a little information into how things were made from the paintings attached to the walls of the churches and monasteries visited in the region of Lake Tana and the glorious rock hewn monasteries of Lalibela close to the border with Eritrea.

Churches and monasteries have both wall paintings and quite a lot of paintings on canvas stuck to the walls directly.

The inner walls of the circular mud built churches around Lake Tana were lined with linen canvas, which had been painted with what looks to be casein-based paint. There is plenty of evidence of painting and repainting images as a process of renewal and pride rather than for restoration purposes.

Both fine quality linen canvas and mixed fibre canvas – possibly hemp or a cotton mix – is stuck to the mud walls prior to being painted. There is no evidence of a ground preparation layer.photo-12

Bible scenes and stories are illustrated in a traditional frieze format.
The paint layer is directly and evenly applied, it is opaque and fairly thick suggesting casein based Tuschlein technique – distemper.camels

The materials would be locally available, affordable, quick and easy to make (water based) and to use in quantity. Equally they would be quick drying with the added bonus of being relatively safe to use.

The frieze like nature of the paintings, which fit curving walls sometimes 20 feet high and openings for windows and doors, suggests the paintings would be carried out in situ once the mud walls had been lined with canvas fabric. (It would otherwise be complicated measuring and pattern cutting to paint the canvases then apply them to the walls, let alone damaging to brittle paint layers).canvas-on-walls2

The design quality of the images suggests they are standard images copied from pattern books rather than local interpretations of stories. It made me wonder if there are itinerant artisans making these works? The standard of interpretation is fairly consistent and quality relatively high which would mean either local communities have more than their fair share of competent artists or more likely the Church calls in a team to decorate it. It would be interesting to find out.

The linen canvas is probably attached using animal or vegetable glue that adheres well to mud and daub. The canvasses are evenly and well-attached indicating skill and craftsmanship at work, again an itinerant work force. Linen had also been attached to wooden steps, which too had been painted. Passing traffic and damages at hand height level has sometimes frayed the edges of the linen.

Pigments were bright and usually appeared freshly painted with modern synthetic versions of ultramarine and vermilion along with yellow ochre’s, earth colours, a bright and heavy white (lead?), mixtures of green and an opaque blue-black, probably lamp black, for outlines.

Many Churches had religious canvas paintings propped against the walls; most were modern sometimes gaudily painted probably using the equivalent of household paint – glossy, bright, cheap and plentiful.

The remains of wall paintings at the Church of Bet Maryam in Lalibela are said to be 6th century. They are faded with many losses but remarkable in having survived and not having been repainted. Although damaged the ghostly images of the Three Kings are clearly visible. The pigments are earths with a lamp black and a white, the opacity and brightness of which suggests a lead based pigment.wall-painting

Other paintings in scrolls, parchment books and wooden diptychs were brought out to view. Some were patently old such as the parchment manuscripts bound between wooden covers in the Ashetan Maryam Monastery high on the ridge above Lalibela at around 3,500 meters.parchment-manuscript
Some, such as the large format texts held in the modern 1960’s Church of St Mary of Zion in Lalibela, are recent acquisitions as are the paintings on canvas there – in sorry condition but purposefully well used and adored.

A fleeting glimpse, a spiritual adventure a professional eye and always a privilege.Bet-Giyorgis-rock-hewn-Church-Lalibela

Desert Monastery opens state of the art Library housing some of the oldest books and manuscripts in the world

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Over one thousand years ago two Syrian monks Matthew and Abraham established a Coptic Christian Community in the north east of Egypts’ desert.
Here in the 9th century a library grew containing Gospel manuscripts, various religious texts and theological writings.

Leap forward to May 25th 2013 and a new state of the art Library begun in 2006 will celebrate the continuation of this desert home to priceless manuscripts.

Acclimatised storage conditions, Conservation studios and reading rooms for scholars are housed in a building designed to be in harmony with the original monastery buildings.

Some of the desert Fathers have been trained in Conservation and Preservation Practice both on site and in Conservation Studios of international Museums.

I was privileged to be involved with The Levantine Trust in London who, along with organising training programmes and Conservation seasons at the Monastery, set about raising funds for this huge undertaking.

I will be at the ceremony on Sunday – pictures to follow :)

For more information on the project and the history of Deir al-Surian visit their website.

New Life in the Egyptian Desert for ancient Coptic Manuscripts.

 

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The author getting stuck in the narrow corridors as television crews peer in at some of the manuscripts in the new underground storage facilities.

A state of the art 3 storey building, constructed to blend harmoniously within the Monastery walls c600AD. The Library houses gospel texts, manuscripts, theological and philosophic writings and copies of the Bible inscribed on papyrus and on parchment over 1000 years ago.

Conservation storage facilities underground are conditioned to preserve the collection.

The ground floor rooms house research facilities and a photographic studio for the digitation project about to begin with funding from the Wellness Foundation.

The top floor is a compact and well designed Conservation studio. Work benches have impressive built in light boxes to facilitate the work of Paper Conservators on ancient manuscripts.

It is a fantastic facility, inspirational in its scope and ambition. It will serve to light the way for similar projects in remote places where the worlds heritage is held by communities who open their minds and doors for the benefit of us all.

Saliba Douaihy

Saliba Douaihy is one of the great Lebanese artists of the 20th century. Born 1912 in Lebanon he moved to the USA in the 1950′s where his style changed dramatically from beautifully observed classical landscapes to technically brilliant abstracts in his later years.

In this period he changed his painting medium from oil to acrylic for his ‘hard edged‘ paintings. AUB has three hard edge abstracts that illustrate very well the artist’s process in mastering the nature of paint and paint mediums to enable painting in the ‘hard edge’ style.

We do well to reflect at this point that modern painters only got to where they are now because paint mediums changed. Pollock and Rothko could never have painted their large-scale format works or use the painting techniques they did (pouring, spraying, dripping etc) were it not for new developments in paint materials that began before, but were delayed by, WWII.

Picasso, who refused to have his ideas tethered to fixed working methods and materials, experimented with household paints in the first decade of the 20th century. Their fluidity, quantities, intense synthetic colours, durability, rapid drying and relative cheapness were just a few of the characteristics of household paint seized upon by creative geniuses seeking new modes for expression.

Sequieros inspired many mid 20th century ‘Greats’ to explore modern commercial paints in his 1936 workshops in New York, paving the way to the modern art of painting we know today.

The American University of Beirut has in its collection seventeen paintings by Saliba Douaihy. This collection covers his oeuvre from the classics of the 1950′s, to 1990′s abstracts and his embracing of the modern movement.

Having worked as Conservator on these seventeen paintings more will be written about them in a later article. However, a piece of advice learned from my exposure to Douaihy’s paintings is on how they should be handled – Do Not Varnish them.

Most of these Douaihy paintings, whether early landscapes or later abstracts are without varnish (one oil on panel had a patchily applied resin varnish). It was the artist’s choice; whether he didn’t have any varnish, didn’t like varnish or simply forgot, there is precedence for not varnishing.

It is problematic for the Conservator; removing imbibed surface dirt is complicated, difficult and sometimes impossible. For the Collector, Curator and Conservator alike without a protective coat of varnish paintings are even more vulnerable to dirt and environmental contaminants; display and storage environments are matters for serious and professional concerns (more on that in a later blog).

In this article though I wish to draw attention to another of Douaihy’s talents, that of designer of Stained Glass.

In the USA he lived and worked in an atelier above the Maronite ‘Church of Our Lady of Lebanon’ in Brooklyn, New York. I visited the church earlier this month to see its stained glass pictures of Saints in the lower windows and the great arch window above the Nave entrance.

The stained glass is quite remarkable.

The windows are not traditional leaded lights but a mosaic of overlapping pieces of coloured glass in several layers, acting as a prism. I was fortunate to view them on a glittering autumn day (a week after the late October hurricane which wreaked such havoc on America’s East coast but cleared the atmosphere of particulate pollution) the light was spectacular.

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Fortunately the Church (currently undergoing scaffolded maintenance) was in good and safe order.

Dr Saleeby, collection donor to AUB and friend and confidant of the artist said Douaihy would sketch out his basic designs and lay his glass mosaic pieces over the image.

It is both a direct and expressive technique enabling him to draw upon his painters consciousness and his eye as a great colourist.

 

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I will write again on his technique in making the windows but to finish this introduction on a painterly note, I bring the subject of his paintings and his glass work together.

Above the Altar Douaihy painted in oil on plaster a huge landscape vista of  ‘Our Lady of Lebanon’  a 20metre high statue catching the eye of both pilgrim and passerby as it towers above Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean sea. It is an instantly recognisable landmark.

In in a display of artistic beauty and conceit Douaihy mirrors his painting in his stained glass design for the Church. Using the same subject for the stained glass window above the Nave we see changes of shape from the naturalistic to the stylised forms dictated by the medium. More intense colour requiring sunlight to inform us of the spirit of the place is pressed upon the artist by the medium.

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The medium of stained glass forces a change of vision and in doing this Douaihy shifted too and we see signs of the future artist he was to become.

Douaihy brought prodigious, yet to be discovered talent, into this Church and used it to remind everyone of his love for his homeland.

As his paintings begin to receive ever greater International recognition Douaihy’s work directs this towards Lebanon, a tribute he most surely intended.

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Shipping Paintings

Several paintings I’ve worked on in recent months are being shipped overseas for an International exhibition in Paris.‘Le Corps Decouvert’ opens at l’Institut du Monde Arabe March 27th to July 15th 2012. The human form in Middle Eastern Art is nothing new, this exhibition is thought provoking, enticing and long over due.
From the point of view of shipping the collection from Beirut to Paris the process is tense with detail, timing and handling issues.
The whole handling process for any loan is fraught with risk, usually dealt with by authoritative and expert Registrars. Where an Institution does not have trained overseers and negotiators then it is up to staff to learn as much as possible about procedures for the packing, shipping and handling of fine art cargo.
Much has been written on materials for packing and handling, it is a well developed field, look online for materials and techniques and again most International Fine Art Shippers will provide information online. What you do have to be aware of is that often International Fine Art Shippers often sub-contract the job to small shipping companies whose job it is to ship a nations exports be it coal or tinned tomatoes. Fine art is just another cargo earning money for them. Therefore, dear Courier, beware. Know what YOU need to know and be prepared to fight for your right to be heard.
It helps if Curators are up to scratch with procedures and to make every effort to learn what these are. Similarly for Conservators and any other staff who are called upon to travel with the objects. It is a privilege to travel as a Courier but is not for the feint hearted.
Professional Fine Art Shippers are the first contact most Couriers will experience for the packing and are beholden to them for instruction as to procedure. In places where shipping and packing are down to general practitioners whose cargo is cars, timber and tinned tomatoes then getting them to understand that paintings are fragile may require more than just a phone call outlining what a painting is. Make personal contact with the shipper if nothing else and explain the nature of the material.
If the Courier is unsure of the process then asking the shippers is the only way to proceed.
I have my own experience of many years being a Courier to draw on. Working through a major organisation with an International reputation such as the Victoria & Albert Museum in London I learned the processes at a high level. I learned to appreciate the work of the Registar who understands implications of the international law pertaining to export and import, customs and airfreight. They see the dangers, have had them assessed and work to high standards.
Some Fine Art Shipping Companies work to the same standards, handle the paper work and take the Courier through each stage.
Insist on the best for your cargo, do not let shipping agents take the objects days or weeks or days ahead of schedule just because it is convenient for them.
Minimise the time the objects are out of your sight – ok, they’re in the cargo hold of the aircraft now but where were you when they were put there and where will you be when they are removed?
Get the shippers to liaise and get the appropriate passes for you, the Courier, to accompany the cargo into Customs and beyond.
Momart an international Fine Art Shipping Agent has produced a booklet ‘Airport Courier Training’. It is short and sweet and outlines most of what the Courier needs to know if there is no one else to tell them.
‘Courierspeak’ by Cordelia Rose is a useful multilingual phrase book. Just reading one or two phrases alerts you to the world awaiting the Courier – ‘Ask the forklift truck driver not to lift the cases so high, please’ – ‘It is too unsafe and dirty to unpack the cases here’ – ‘This is the top’ .
The book is in English; French; Dutch; Spanish; Japanese and Greek. The Middle East is now a serious contender in the world of Fine Art and I would like to see a new edition with an Arabic translation too.
If you look at any Museum functioning at an International level they will have produced a set of Loan in/out guidelines, these are more than helpful when you do not have your own department to organise things.
The British Library website has a set of points which most of the worlds lenders and borrowers would do well to read – clear and succinct for the expert and novice alike.
Let those pirouetting fork lift trucks know you are there and watching them, they automatically slow down.
The world of loans is not slowing down, take heed Collections and Couriers alike.