Taylor Blocker: If you turn a painting around and you looked at the back of it, it would tell its side of the story depending on what has been done. There are paintings that have been glued to sheets of steel to keep it from separating. There are paintings that have been ripped down the middle and a conservator will have to go in and literally restitch the canvas together in situ basically and pull it back together. Any famous work of art that looks good, it does not look like it’s 500 years old, has been touched by a conservator including statues; steel, enamel statues, anything like that, has probably been touched by a conservator at this point.
I did have an opportunity to intern at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. They have the Lunder Conservation Center. I spent a year in Washington DC doing that. I got to learn more about the conservation process. I got to assist the conservators at that institution, and I did also get to work on some paintings there as well. They say that the most work you do in art conservation is undoing other conservators’ mistakes essentially. Back in the old days, they would do all sorts of stuff to try and fix paintings. They would impregnate the canvas with wax and things like that. At the time, it worked but after that continued, it started causing it’s own problems and not reversible essentially.
In general, if there’s loss from a surface of a painting, like the artist may have done an under-paint in one media and then painted on top of that in a different media, that would mean that the paint on top can just flake off essentially or fall off. If you had loss on a painting, essentially you would want to fill that with a spackle to get it as level as possible from the surface of the painting to the point where if you have a lot of embossing or a lot of ridges and things like that on the surface of the painting, you would actually sculpt what it would look like.
If you have a big ridge of paint here and this chunk is missing, you would fill it with spackle and then sculpt it into the shape of that brush stroke itself. The actual paints that you would put on top of that are paper thin paints that literally are just pigments that you put over it. Everything that you do in conservation including creating the fake ridges and things like that can be undone. The paint that I would use, you could remove it with spit if you wanted to. That’s actually what you use to clean paintings for the most part, the saliva.
The enzyme in your spit break down varnishes very well. For the most part, if you watch a conservator, they’ll stick a swab in their mouth and swab it, get rid of the swab, repeat the step and do that over and over, inch by inch, on the surface of the painting. Now modern stuff, if a conservator has touched it, if they’ve had to clean it at any point, it probably has saliva on it. Just a little fun fact.
If I could go back into art, I think I would just want to paint myself. Not literally paint myself, because that’s there, I’ve already done that, but paint again, I guess. That was something that I did not think I would like as much, but I had gotten to the point in my schooling where I was like, “I think I don’t want to be a painter.”
It’s something that I’ve always found very relaxing and it’s like meditative if you can imagine. I would be alone in the art building for hours just staring on the canvas and working on it. Doing tiny little details and things along those lines and trying to pick out, and make something appear the way that I wanted it to appear. Personally being able to accomplish your vision and being able to create that in a way is very satisfying. It’s a unique feeling I think to say, “I want this to be like this,” and to be able to accomplish that. Using nothing but your techniques and your person, your paint brushes and everything like that. That’s a really good feeling to have.