Conservation of Your Artwork: Intent and Keeping Records

Camilla J. Van Vooren is Senior Paintings Conservator at the Western Center for the Conservation of Fine Arts in Denver, Colorado. A few years ago, I asked her recently what kind of information conservators need from artists. This was first published in my newsletter, but I think it’s important to revisit the topic.

What we desperately need to know from artists, I think, is a structure-and-instruction report which makes specific references to their intent. For example, “If that caviar falls off your work, should I restore it or just go buy fresh caviar?” [Did I mention Camilla has a sense of humor to be envied? She goes on . . . ]

Seriously, what I think would be of immense value would be a form that covers every aspect of the structure of the work. For example, on an oil painting, start with the “auxiliary support”: the stretcher, strainer, panel or board that the art is executed on. Then we would talk about the gesso or ground layer, then the paint film, the varnish, etc. It would be helpful to the artist to keep records of these things for their own future reference.

For each of these categories, the artist would list the brands or types of materials used including technical references, especially if it is an unusual material. If they would include procedural notes such as layering schemes it would be invaluable to future conservators.

Then, they could include notes on the degree to which they would have any part conserved or restored. For example, if the stretcher fails, do you approve of a conservator removing the canvas from the stretcher and replacing it?

In all of the different areas, artists could include condition notes and their thoughts about it with some general comments about their intent at the end. This might be anything from “Do anything necessary to preserve the 2-dimensional image” to “DO NOT VARNISH” to “Let the thing rot. I specifically do not want it to be preserved!”

If we had these types of guidelines from artists, it would be heaven!

Camilla used paintings in the above example–unconventional materials, to be exact–but this advice can be applied to any medium.

Future generations will have no idea what your intent was in making a piece of art or what your intent was for the future of that art. You have to spell it out if it isn’t obvious. Not everyone wants their art to be preserved forever. Some artists choose decaying materials on purpose–so that the work changes over time. But you have to make us (especially curators and conservators) aware of your intent.

Keep notes about your working materials, techniques, and intent. If you maintain, as you should, a database of your work, it’s easy to add these notes to your computerized inventory.

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3 comments to Conservation of Your Artwork: Intent and Keeping Records

  • “Future generations will have no idea what your intent was in making a piece of art or what your intent was for the future of that art.”

    What a great conversation starter. I think for many of us, it takes years to develop a sense of our ‘intent’, and more years to put that into words. In the meantime, I am a firm believer in A) using the best materials you can afford at any point in your career, and B) recording each completed work digitally (slides in earlier years), and having some sort of easily accessible archive by year, including size, title, price, medium, buyer, agent (whomever the work was purchased though), and current owner and location of any given piece of art. This last bit is often difficult to obtain as many gallery owners do not want to ‘give up’ their clientele, or often don’t even ask (which amazes me).

    PS, I love the caviar analogy! What a hoot!
    Thank you for a thoughtful, useful blog.

  • I think listing materials, in a more specific way can also be a great marketing tool…Say you use the new soybean based gesso, low toxicity walnut oil paint, linen instead of cotton canvas, sustainable wood stretchers, a knife instead of an animal hair brush, no turpentines, natural not chemical varnish, why not tell people? It helps to explain your pricepoints & will also help the conservators in the future…Describing your method too: If you stalked your subject for weeks in order to sketch from life, while your neighbour snapped a photo & traced, why not tell all?
    I have been using http://www.fineartregistry.com to inventory works & I list in the description section all materials used…

  • I’ll definitely have to add some of these ideas into the records I already keep. After trying out printmaking, and realizing how process intensive it is, I started keeping records of my process for all art that I make – it helped in printmaking, but it also helped with painting and drawing, especially if I had to leave a painting for a while and come back to it later.

    I actually build a notebook before an exhibition now. Each piece in the exhibition has 1) a summary page, where I brainstorm about the concepts/imagery to be used in the piece including sketches; 2) the developed ‘rough’ that I build on a computer and use as the image to transfer to my final media, be it canvas, paper, etc; 3) a ‘control sheet’, that is simply an Excel spreadsheet that allows me to record different facts about the work as I go. My wife helped me design this last one (she can do math God bless her). It has space for me to record material use, a place to record time (dates for developing the idea, gridding the rough, starting and finishing the transfer of the image, starting and completing the drawing/painting/print. The part that needs the math though is the part for the ratios used in transfers. All I have to do is plug in what the ratio is between my small rough image and the final canvas size, and the Excel sheet will calculate measurements for me. For example, it will tell me if I measure 3/16 of an inch on my rough, how many /16ths that will be on my final canvas. It’s wonderful.