In 2022 I completed a two-week placement in the painting conservation lab at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) with Senior Painting Conservator Jenny O’Connell. This professional development activity was made possible by the ADFAS Armidale mid-career scholarship I received in 2021.
The scholarship provided a two-way learning opportunity with the team at TMAG, where I learnt from them and assisted with treatments while gaining access to a long-established lab with major equipment. During the two weeks I tested and used equipment, assisted with treatments, spent time with the conservation technician, enjoyed company in the lab, did some networking, and made stock for the lab.
Testing and using equipment
One of the major pieces of equipment we tested was the vacuum hot table. A vacuum hot table allows even heat and pressure to be applied to a painting and can be used for treatments such as lining and flattening paintings. We also tested the wide range of pH meters available in the lab by testing the pH of water for surface cleaning purposes.
I had the opportunity to operate other equipment I do not currently have access to in my private practice – such as a platen, which acts like a mini suction table, a digital microscope with monitor, which allows for greater visibility of the area being magnified, and a magnetic stirrer for mixing solutions – and I observed the ultraviolet and infrared examination equipment being used.
Testing and using this equipment assisted my research of similar equipment to establish what I would be able to use in my own conservation studio in the future. I was also able to assist Jenny in trialling the vacuum hot table and I researched pH meters and recommended an updated model for the lab.
While at TMAG I was able to help with treatments such as moving large paintings, removing backing boards and assist with the examination of paintings. Several years ago, I volunteered at TMAG and commenced a treatment on a painting by Lucien Dechaineux, a well-known art teacher in Hobart during the early 1900s. I was able to continue with this treatment and access the wide range of retouching materials available in the lab. As I do not have such a large range of these materials, I found it helpful to try watercolours and pigments that I had not had the opportunity to use in the past.
One important piece of equipment that both Jenny and I have access to is an Infrared (IR) Heat Tool manufactured by RH Conservation Engineering. This tool has been very helpful in my private practice, allowing me to complete treatments such as repairing a puncture in a thick resin painting or relaxing a raised area of canvas. As Jenny was planning on using the IR Heat Tool after my scholarship, I have since been able to demonstrate the tool to Jenny online.
Managing a private practice often involves performing treatments and tasks that, in an institution, the conservation technician would perform. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend time with TMAG’s conservation technician, Lisa Charleston, and gain some tips and tricks about framing, including mould making and establishing what tools are available.
Preparing and experimenting
I prepared solutions of conservation grade adhesives including isinglass, Methocel and Aquazol, as well as triammonium citrate, which is used for surface cleaning. I was able to experience the preparation of gum elemi for the first time. Gum elemi is a soft resin that can be used in a varnish to improve flexibility and adhesion or as an infill for losses to the paint surface and is more malleable than some other infill materials. While these are solutions I can prepare in my studio, I would not be able to produce such large quantities.
I also prepared varnishes for stock in quantities I could not do in my studio. We painted canvas boards with Golden acrylics (titanium white and carbon black), including a textured section, and then layered the varnishes on top. I used the varnishes Regalrez and Larapol, both gloss and matte. These boards are useful for indicating how a varnish will appear when used on a painting.
We began an experiment with using gels for surface cleaning, a task we had both been eager to do for some time. Gels can enable greater control of delivering a cleaning solution to a painted surface. This requires a lot more experimentation, but it was beneficial to embark on the process. As I work in a small studio, I try to limit the amount of solvent I use so hope to continue to experiment with the use of gels, both aqueous and solvent.
Working alone as a private conservator in regional Victoria can be isolating, so experiencing other guests in the lab environment was both productive and enjoyable. As well as other TMAG staff members, there was a visiting conservator and curator and a volunteer with whom to exchange ideas. I also participated in inspecting gallery spaces with other members of staff and networked with the wider staff at morning teas. I attended the AICCM Tasmanian Division industry drinks and met some of the locals in the industry.
Some of the learnings from the scholarship are:
- Always collaborate, continue to build strong networks and make connections.
- Make time to experiment, don’t be afraid to try new things, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Develop easy instructions or ‘cheat sheets’ for making solutions and gels, and for using equipment.
One of the outcomes from the scholarship is that Senior Painting Conservator Jenny O’Connell and I now have regular online meetings to discuss treatments. This experience has led to an ongoing exchange of ideas, and future collaborations are possible. From her experience, Jenny summed up my time at TMAG:
It was fantastic to have Sherryn visit TMAG for two weeks and the staff loved having her around. We planned a very full schedule and managed to achieve most of it!
Although the conservation team at TMAG is collaborative, being the only painting conservator means that some of the finer details, such as which varnish to test or which colours to mix, aren’t really topics of conversation! Sherryn and I had a great time talking all things paintings conservation.
It was fantastic to set aside two weeks to test materials and equipment, and to experiment with new cleaning methods. We’d both attended online Gels seminars in the past and putting those into practice was a big milestone for me. I think that the best outcome has been the ongoing collaboration. I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss painting conservation in detail and to help each other out.
Thank you to ADFAS Armidale for supporting the collaboration. I think it’s a great model for peer-to-peer mentoring and would recommend it to other conservators if they have the opportunity.
We achieved a great deal in two weeks and I am very grateful for the opportunity. My practice has benefitted from using equipment and materials that I have not used before, certainly in those quantities and sizes. I am better able to prioritise and research the equipment and materials I could potentially acquire for my studio. I am glad I was able to give back by assisting with treatments and making stock for the lab. I would like to thank ADFAS Armidale and AICCM for making this scholarship possible, TMAG for their support, and Jennifer O’Connell, Senior Painting Conservator, TMAG, for her generosity.