In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists’ secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.
To reconstruct an Old Master painting, you first have to deconstruct it. In the art conservation program of the University of Delaware, students gather as much forensic evidence as they can to peel back the layers of museum masterpieces, then set to work replicating their artists’ gestures, producing historically accurate reconstructions. In the process, they revive archaic studio practices: grinding raw pigments, preparing animal glue, and separating egg yolks to form tempera.
The point of a reconstruction is not to produce a copy of the painting as it appears today, but rather to extrapolate how the painting would have looked upon completion. According to assistant professor Brian Baade, himself a graduate of UD’s art conservation master's program, this type of exercise was a large part of American students’ training in the early 20th century, and then fell by the wayside as focus shifted towards new technologies.
“That’s all really essential,” Baade tells The Creators Project. “But if you want to talk about paint handling, you need to reconstruct historic recipes and see how the paint moves. None of the paint materials we have today resemble historical paint materials at all. It’s all synthesized, and the pigments are very different. I thought it was important to introduce reconstruction in the training.”
While working on a 14th century painting, for example, a student might use pouncing, an underdrawing method common in that period: After sketching the composition on paper, the outlines are perforated, then transferred onto the final panel by pushing charcoal through the pierced holes. A Rembrandt reconstruction would likely require the preparation of a double ground popular in the 17th century, consisting of an off-white layer atop an earth-colored layer. To make ultramarine blue, brace yourself: the multi-step process of extracting the pigment from the lapis lazuli stone is a slow return on investment.
Before any raw painting materials are manipulated, however, careful study of existing research is required. X-rays of the artwork might have revealed compositional changes or relevant information about its construction. An infrared photograph may have captured a preliminary sketch or underdrawing, and examination of the painting in UV light could have led prior scholars to identify surface coatings and materials. Microscopic cross-sections extracted from the painting might also exist, exposing paint layers and pigments. Beyond that, published research about the artist’s other work, and about traditional painting practices of the time, can help complete the picture.
Baade’s passion for spreading knowledge of historic techniques extends beyond the classroom. Since 2009, he has spearheaded the online Kress Reconstruction Project with conservator and doctoral candidate Kristin deGhetaldi, documenting their eight reconstructions of works by Giotto, El Greco, Hans Memling, and others, and several more virtual reconstructions. “We both thought that one of the things we don’t see out there in the museum world is enough education about the materiality of artwork,” comments Baade while explaining the origins of the project.
Whether you’re browsing the website or lucky enough to take one of Baade’s classes, you’re sure to come out with a better appreciation for the craft involved in producing a painting circa 1320, and beyond.