Chris Russell, Chief Preparator and Conservator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, discusses the challenges of caring for and maintaining the original quality of a painting when an artist has experimented with non-traditional media and techniques, as Emily Carr did during the 1930s.

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Chris Russell, Chief Preparator and Conservator, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
20th Century
Victoria, British Columbia, CANADA
© 2007, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. All Rights Reserved.


Transcript

Hello, my name is Chris Russell. I’m chief preparator and conservator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and I’m responsible for the care of Emily’s artwork in the collection.

When artists work in a traditional manner with traditional media generally conservators are happy, because things don’t go wrong. It’s when they step outside the boundaries and experiment with new media and techniques that sometimes we run into difficulties, and this is what happened with Emily Carr’s artwork. Her earliest works generally are watercolors with traditional watercolor paper and good quality paint and they’ve survived very well for almost 100 years.

Emily’s big breakthrough came in the 1930’s when she developed a technique – or invented a technique – of painting with oil colors drastically thinned down with gasoline to give the effect of watercolor but in a much more dramatic color and tone. Although this new technique liberated her artistically the downside was that she used the poorest quality materials cheap Manila paper, very thin paper, which yellowed over time. The paper which was initially cream color was often left unpainted in areas; the color of the paper would have glowed through the paint. This unfortunately has now turned brown over the years.

The problem for the conservator, with a painting such as this, which is mounted on a very heavy but very acidic cardboard, is to remove the paper without damage. The process involves a series of water baths in distilled water. The first bath generally loosens the paper; the second bath dissolves most of the glue that’s still adhering. Then another bath is to remove more of the discoloration. Finally when it’s seems to be as clean as it can be the paper is de-acidified in a bath to give it an alkaline buffer. At this phase, the paper has lost the deep deep brown color and returned to a lighter yellow, but unfortunately it will never be the same as it was originally. The next process is to strengthen the paper. Now usually what we do is float this onto a piece of mulberry, Japanese mulberry paper, which is very resistant to tearing and is neutral.

Then of course it has to be framed and glazed. We frame and glaze the work using an ultraviolet filtering glass or plexi glass. Finally we have to control the humidity of the space in which it’s stored of exhibited. The higher the humidity the more rapid the deterioration and there’s always the danger of mold, actual mold growing on the surface of the paper which would be disastrous. Ideally, if the works could be kept at almost freezing point, we’d preserve them for very much longer but it makes it very difficult for viewers to see them.


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