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Q&A: Conservation Layers Art, Science


By Jill M. Speegle

Whether she is restoring a massive painted wall or a small family heirloom painting, Chantal Bernicky takes skill and love for conservation to a new level.

“I love working in a field that combines artistic and scientific sensibilities,” Bernicky said in a recent conversation.

Bernicky Art Conservation

Project credits for Chantal Bernicky include decorative-painting restoration work on the historic Willis McCook Mansion.

The owner of Fine Art Conservation Services in Pittsburgh, PA, has spent 13 years as a professional art conservator. After graduating with a master’s degree in art conservation from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, she held a variety of positions at several respected institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, before she started her private conservation business.

One of her most notable projects was the restoration of the hand-painted chapel ceiling at the Willis McCook Mansion. It’s one of the few mansions left on a boulevard once dubbed “Millionaires’ Row” in Pittsburgh. The grand estate was recently restored and converted into a boutique hotel, Mansions on Fifth.

Bernicky provided a detailed review of her work on that project in this Durability + Design feature article.

Looking to provide a glimpse into the field of conservation and paint-layer analysis, I asked Bernicky about her work.

Why did you choose to follow this career path?

Bernicky: Life brings you places you have no idea about some time. I was working in a professional theater in Montreal, Quebec, for about 10 years. I had to stop working to have knee surgery. Since I did not just want to stay at home watching time go by, I decided to register to the art history undergrad program at UQAM (Université du Québèc à Montréal).

Bernicky employs the most current analytical tools to characterize structure and paint layer related condition issues. Another project in her portfolio was the preservation of a large chewing tobacco mural. (Note: Those murals are the topic of Pamela Simmons' blog, Mail Pouch Tobacco: Hitting the Broad Side of 20,000+ Barns.)

One thing led to another, and I found myself in the graduate program. I was working for the director of the art history program, and he introduced me to the field of art conservation. It seemed like the perfect area of specialty, where I could combine my previous experience as a visual artist (mixed-media) and an art historian with scientific techniques. To this day, I love working in a field that combines artistic and scientific sensibilities.

What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve worked on?

Bernicky: Generally, the projects that allow me to research their art historical setting in conjunction with scientific analysis and treatment are the most rewarding. One really gets a sense of knowing the work and the artist on a very intimate level.

When I worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, I was able to focus some of my work on researching the materials and techniques of early works by the French artist Jean Dubuffet. In addition to doing extensive art historical researchon the artist, his philosophy and the critical reception of his works, I was able to consult his notebooks kept at the Dubuffet Foundation in Paris, in which he systematically noted his use of materials and techniques.

Further analysis was done at the National Gallery with techniques such as Infra-red radiography, X-radiography, FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy), XRF and XRD (X-ray fluorescence and diffraction), cross-sections, etc. The information gathered allowed us to better understand the materials and their degradation. In turn, a treatment protocol was established for the proper treatment that needed conservation.

How does paint-layer analysis and other paint research factor into your work?

Bernicky: We use paint layer analysis to determine the composition of each layer. This helps us identify the solubility of the layers, their age, and how the paint matrix was created. It is useful in figuring out if later additions (overpaint) were done on a painting by someone else other than the artist. Dating of pigments and binders can facilitate the dating of a work and its provenance.

What is your process on a typical project?

Bernicky: The first step in any conservation project is to thoroughly document the object or location. This is done with photography and graphs explaining the state of the object or location prior to the treatment. This is followed by analysis of the components to understand solubility, composition and construction techniques.

Bernicky conservation
As a professionally trained paintings conservator, Bernicky can perform tear repair and filling on varied types of painted objects. Photo at left shows an image of a 19th Century portrait during tear repair and right shows the portrait after treatment, which included inpainting and revarnishing.

A treatment protocol is determined with the client/owner of the piece, and the scope of the treatment is established. The treatment is then started, and every step is documented. Halfway through the process, the client/owner is brought up to date on the progression of the treatment and the scope is re-adjusted if needed.

The products used during the treatment are stable and tested by the industry. In addition, the treatment should be reversible; assuring that the work we do today can be reversed in the future if needed. A treatment report explaining the different steps and materials, accompanied by detailed photo documentation is given to the client/owner.

What are your favorite materials and products?

Bernicky: The field of conservation is relatively small. We often collaborate with the paint, chemistry and physics industries to customize products for the special needs of our field. A large array of glues with specific qualities has been borrowed through time and allows us to use them for very specific purposes.

BEVA 371 (Berger's ethyl vinyl acetate) is a non-aqueous adhesive that come is the form of a gel or sheet and is often used to consolidate fragile paint layer or to line unstable canvases on a new one to stop its degradation. In turn, traditional water colors (Winsor & Newton) are used to tone and inpaint losses and abraded areas and is another one of my favorite materials.

What do you like about your work?

Bernicky: The diversity of the work is very enticing. Every project has its perks. Large projects within a museum setting often allows for extensive historical research, access to scientific analysis, and time for a thorough treatment. I also love to work for private clients who ask you to bring back to life a family heirloom that means the world to them.

Being a private conservator, I enjoy being able to manage my schedule and select the projects I want to get involved with.

Could you offer any advice for anyone considering the field of art conservation?

Bernicky: The field of conservation is very competitive, with a limited amount of openings. If someone is interested in joining this field, they should contact local conservators and talk with them about their experience likes and dislikes, challenges, etc. They should also visit the training programs and become familiar with the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) and its code of ethics, annual conference, etc.

The training program expects candidates to have pre-program experience, so it’s a good idea to volunteer/ work for museums, art institutions and private conservators for a couple of years prior to applying. It is usually very difficult to be accepted the first time around in a program. Candidates should not get discouraged by that, but rather ask a lot of questions on what they should improve before applying a second time. Every program in the United States, Canada and Europe is a little different, and the candidate should determine what would be the best fit for him or her.


Jill M. Speegle

Jill Speegle is the Editor of Durability + Design News. She earned her B.A. in journalism and English as well as her J.D. from the University of Arkansas. In Sketches, Jill shares her thoughts on a number of topics that may be of interest to the D+D community, including architecture, interior design, green building, historic restoration, and whatever else catches her radar.



Tagged categories: Architecture; Color; Design; Green building; Interior design; Restoration; Artists; Conservation; Decorative finishes; Decorative Finishes; Decorative painting; Historic Preservation; Maintenance coating work; Repair materials

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