Art Conservation, An Intro - Elizabeth Jablonski, Guest Blogger

It's a new year! It's best to start it off with a BANG! So this week, we have an amazing guest blogger - Art Conservator, Elizabeth Jablonski - here to answer some of those most befuddling questions about how to properly take care of our treasures and how conservation plays a major role! After all, we spent all that time hunting for them or creating them; of course we should protect them!

What Is Art Conservation and Is It like Restoration?
Inpainting an oil painting on canvas.

Photo Credit:  Photo courtesy of the Winterthur/University of
Delaware Program in Art Conservation, by Lazlo Bodo,
through the American Institute for Conservation.
Simply put, Art Conservation is the preservation of art, objects and sites of cultural and historical value.  As long as there have been objects of value, there have been people caring for them. This may be the shaman with the medicine bundle who preserves its power to heal or the monks with the statue that is so sacred that it can only be revealed on certain holy days.  Or, this may be the local artists, builders and townspeople who rebuild the community place of worship after a natural disaster. Some more well-known examples are the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci.  

Art Conservation is often called ‘Restoration’.  Other terms include ‘preservation’, ‘refinishing’ and ‘refurbishing’.  Art Conservation addresses the underlying causes of damage and deterioration, while Restoration often focuses primarily on the appearance of the object.  Art conservators perform both functions.  In fact, the term, “Art Conservation,” came into use during the latter part of the 1960’s as a way to describe the unique combination of skills needed:  1)  fine art, 2) art history and material culture and 3) chemistry and materials science.  This inclusion of chemistry and materials science started in the late 19th century when major museums began including chemists in the conservation process.  

Where Do Conservators Work and How Can I Find One?
Art conservators can be found not only in art and science museums, but also working in independent practices. Their clients are individuals with one or more art objects, small museums, private, corporate and government collectors.  

Surface cleaning a photograph.

Photo Credit:  Photo courtesy of the Winterthur/University
of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, through the
American Institute for Conservation.
Locating a conservator is as easy as contacting your regional or national art conservation organization that provides a ‘Finding A Conservator’ service, such as the American Institute for Conservation and the Canadian Association for Professional Conservators.

Are There Guidelines or Standards for Art Conservators?
In preserving cultural property that is handed down through the generations, art conservators have an obligation to the objects, their custodians and to society, as a whole.  To that end, conservators follow a code of ethics or guidelines for practice, as put forth by regional and national organizations.  

How Are Conservators Trained?
Conservation requires a broad skill set.  When planning a localized repair, like mending a hole in a canvas or gluing a handle back onto a ceramic piece, conservators take into consideration many factors, such as identification of the materials, their past and future use, previous repairs, non-original materials, the long-term effect of new materials to be added and display, storage and transport climate conditions. 

Traditionally, conservators were trained by apprenticeship, which continues to this day.  Increasingly, however, people are choosing to attend one of the university and graduate school programs in Art Conservation in North America and throughout the world.  As more research becomes available, it is possible to receive much of this wide-ranging information in a concentrated way through schooling, while also practicing hand-skills and practical problem-solving in the conservation laboratory with mentors. Even after graduating, conservators continue to develop their skills, incorporating new information throughout their careers.  In selecting a conservator, be sure to ask about their training and experience.

What Do Conservators Do?
Upon receiving a request for conservation of an object, a conservator`s work can be divided into six major activities:

1)  Examination:
  • identifying the materials that compose the object
  • observing their condition
  • forming a plan for treatment of any condition issues

2)  Documentation
  • recording findings from the examination and treatment procedures in written and pictorial form

3)  Treatment:
Ceramic plate, before conservation treatment.

Photo Credit:  Photo courtesy of the Winterthur/University of
Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Treated by Kate
Cuffari.  Provided by the American Institute for Conservation.
  • stabilizing any deterioration or damage and preserving as much original material as possible
  • restoring the appearance of any damage by visually integrating newly added materials with the surrounding original materials, yet leaving them detectable by common examination methods (such as the naked eye, magnification and ultraviolet light/“black light”)
  • applying only the minimum amount of new material needed
  • using only materials and techniques that are reversible (can be ‘undone’), should new information and better methods become available in the future
Ceramic plate, during conservation treatment.

Photo Credit:  Photo courtesy of the Winterthur/University of
Delaware Program in Art Conservation. Treated by Kate
Cuffari.  Provided by the American Institute for Conservation.

4)  Research:
  • reading information about the object, the artist/maker and the materials and techniques
  • discussing findings and treatment proposals with colleagues and other preservation professionals, such as historians, curators, architects and art handlers
  • working with conservation scientists who analyze materials and techniques

5)  Education
  • giving advice, lectures and workshops to colleagues, preservation professionals and the general public
  • sharing information in publications

6)  Preventive Care
  • using archival materials, display, storage, packing and transport methods to prolong an object's life

Is An Art Conservator Like An Appraiser?
The short answer is, “no”:  art conservators repair and stabilize objects, where as appraisers estimate the monetary value of an object.  Art conservators base their fees on the amount of work needed to be done on the object - not the monetary value.  This is because market values fluctuate, as tastes change, and what is perceived as unimportant today may end up having greater value in the future. 

What Should I Do When I Find An Antique That Needs Conservation?
Talk to the seller of the antique and try to find out as much as possible about the object’s history and materials.  Look at the front, back, underneath and inside (if it is three-dimensional).  Ask what makes the object valuable and if there are any specific elements of particular note, such as an original finish.  Next, contact an art conservator and show the object to them in person.  Be prepared to leave the object with the conservator for a period of time to allow for a thorough examination, proposal for treatment and cost estimate.  Some conservators may charge a nominal fee for this, but not all do, so be sure to clarify before bringing the object in.   Again, this is just an estimate to allow you to make an informed decision before going through with an actual conservation treatment.

If the antique is in particularly bad shape, requiring significant conservation, it might be possible for a conservator to devise a treatment plan that is divided into two stages, with the more immediate needs taken care of first and the restoration/cosmetic work done later.  For example, a painting on canvas may have paint flaking off, which would need to be stabilized immediately.  But the losses (where the paint came off and was lost) could be restored to appear whole, later on.  

Oftentimes, we find objects with a pleasing ‘patina’ of age and use, such as a wrought iron wall sconce with rust, a farming tool with wear on the wooden handle or a chair with worn upholstery on the arms and seat.  This ‘patina’ can give the object its charm and character.  Sometimes this wear is significant to the history of the object and needs to be preserved, though sometimes this wear weakens the stability of the object.  Be sure to ask the seller and conservator about this.  A conservator can take this information into account when forming a treatment plan to balance the preservation needs with the needs of the owner.

Furniture conservation treatment.

Photo Credit:  Photo courtesy of Brian Considine, The J. Paul Getty Museum,
through the American Institute for Conservation

Is Conservation Expensive?
There is the perception that conservation is always expensive, but this is a mistake.  Including well-trained conservators in the care and preservation of objects in the early stages - while they are still stable or have relatively little deterioration - can be a sound investment.  This can easily be less than the cost of repairing extensive damage from neglect.  

For free, or the cost of a few hours of their time, you can seek advice from a conservator on the best way to frame, display and store your treasures before they are subject to the ravages of time and inertia.  Ask about which materials are archival and can be used in direct contact with art.  Find out what the best environment is for the display and storage of your treasures (usually it is away from direct sunlight, sources of heat, air, water and foot traffic and on interior walls and at stable relative humidity and temperature).  If you are an artist, invite a conservator to your studio to find out about how best to store, pack and ship your artwork, as well as which art materials have longevity.  If you have a large collection, consider asking a conservator about creating an emergency disaster salvage plan.

Certainly, when objects are left uncared for and fall into disrepair - or have undergone well-intentioned but misguided preservation processes - they require more work to stabilize, which can translate into more expense.   Even then, however, as mentioned above, lengthy conservation treatments might be able to be broken down into stages.  

What Can I Do to Preserve My Treasures?
As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  You can take an active part in preserving the cultural property that you find, collect and cherish everyday.  Talk to a conservator and find out more about this through your regional and national conservation organizations that offer information on Caring For Your Treasures.

Cheers and good luck with your treasures!

Elizabeth Jablonski is the owner and paintings conservator at Fine Art Paintings Conservation.  Since earning her Master of Art Conservation degree at Queens University, Ontario, she has had a decade of experience preserving and restoring paintings and painted objects.  

Elizabeth grew up visiting the museums in Washington DC and Baltimore on a regular basis. It was at the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibition at the National Gallery of Art (November 1985-April 1986) that she realized she wanted to work with museum objects.  She feels it is a privilege to work with art on a daily basis.


  1. A well written, organized and understandable explanation of what art conservation is and how it can fit into our everyday experiences with the objects we love.

    Bravo, Elizabeth!


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