Michael Hamilton:
art conservation

About thirty years ago my idea of being an artist was slinging some paint on a canvas, hanging it in a gallery and waiting for someone to purchase it.  I now know there's a lot more to preparing art for the long haul.

As a graduate student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art I worked part time in the shop of a privately owned art gallery.  The gallery has been in the family for over 140 years.  I learned how to frame everything imaginable.  Many times we had to be innovative and design new ways to frame not only works of art on paper but every day objects. Nothing brings out the quality of an etching, litho or any print like a well cut matte.  Whether it's a plain or French border matte, it draws the viewers eye to the print and gives the frame something to hang on to.  But the mat cutter is notorious for cutting a perfect 45 degree angle.  If your plate is out of square by just 1/8 of an inch your eye will pick it up when you place that perfect matte on it.  The same is true if the ink strays outside the plate mark.  I've seen plate marks off by 1/2 an inch.  There's not much you can do except to make sure those plates are square before you begin the etching.

Another note to you artists that work on paper.  If you leave 10 inches of paper around the image as a border, expect an 11 inch matte.  Framers are ethically bound not to tamper with the paper in any way.  Reluctantly, sometimes, with the permission of the customer, we will trim it.  So if you wonder why you see that large museum style matte on some prints, that maybe why.

For you pastel artists, use a matte when you frame your work.  I've seen pastels in frames with the glass next to the drawing.  You want the pigment on the paper, not the glass.  If you don't use a matte you have nothing to attach the artwork to.  The paper can become wavy, that's it's nature sometimes, and can touch the glass in areas.  With a matte you can make the depth between artwork and matte as much as the frame will allow.  Then reverse the bevel of the matte so the loose pigment will fall behind the matte and art and not between the glass and the matte where it can be seen by the viewer.  Confusing?  Remember, it's not just slinging paint anymore.

And speaking of my forte.  For the last six years I've been conserving oil paintings.  We call it conserve now because one can't really restore a painting to it's original condition.  Due to cracking, lose of paint and rips and tears one can only do so much.  The good conservation's are when you can't tell anything has been done.

I've worked on over 200 paintings and I've seen some that have lived well and some that have had a rough life.  When they come to me, some have been in grandma's attic sucking up dust, dirt and grime.  Or in grandpa's den with 10 coats of orange cigar nicotine on them.  Everything from sitting in a damp basement growing mold to when the mover dropped it on the stereo and put that "H" shaped rip in it.

Sometimes you have no control of what happens to your oils after you've signed them.  But sometimes a little preventive maintenance will stretch out the life of your work.  While we're on the subject of signing.  You do realize about 1/4 of an inch around the edge of the painting will be covered by the frame.  This is so the painting doesn't fall through the frame.  So sign it far enough from the edge so people can see who's art their about to buy.

Now for the real important stuff.  For those painters who don't like to use varnish.  Don't take my word for it.  Call the National Gallery in D.C. or the Met or any local big time museum's conservators and ask them.  Or imagine that little landscape you sold 50 years from now, in some grandma's attic with dust, dirt and grime attaching itself directly to the paint.  When grandma's grand daughter goes to get it cleaned, how much of the dirt do you think they can get off without taking off paint?

After about 40 years varnish begins to yellow to the point where it's yellow orange glaze visually effects the original colors.  That's the nature of varnish.  It's purpose for the last several hundred years, or so, is to act as a barrier between the grime and the paint.  It's easier to remove dirt and nicotine from varnish then from paint.  A properly applied coat of varnish can be removed usually with little problem.  It is still a tedious and specialized process and should be performed by someone who knows what their doing.  Varnish also brings out the dark areas which have gone flat after drying.  Never use linseed oil to coat your final painting.  In time it turns dark brown and hardens and is much more difficult to remove then varnish.

Having hands on contact with so many different paintings and many different styles and techniques has shown me what worked and what doesn't.  Using a magnifying headset gives one a finite view into the valleys of paint that even the artist never saw.  It's changed the way I paint for the better.  And framing art has enlightened my to the effect of time on art.  Preserving art starts with the artist, continues with the framer and ends with the buyer being responsible for periodic maintenance.

I was born 47 years ago and raised near Dublin, Ohio.  I come from a family of educators, musicians and hard workers.  All bright and with good common sense.  I was a photojournalist for the Army and lived in Japan for 2 years.  Came to Baltimore in 1975 and received a MFA degree at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.  By nature I'm a draftsman and a painter by desire.  I've done etchings, worked in stain glass, ground my own oil paints and made pastels.  I've cleaned 17th Century paintings to 8' x 20' Works Progress Administration (WPA) murals.  I've been around the art block a couple of times and plan on going around a few times more.

Michael Hamilton, Conservator
Your Comments and Questions Appreciated
Read AP article on Michael's Work, Restoring Post Office Art

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