A brush with history

Conserving works of art is a complex and sometimes controversial job. Working with unique and often very expensive paintings requires knowledge of how the artist created them, meaning that a conservator needs to know about history, art, chemistry and physics.

Before artists were able to pop down to an art shop and buy their paint they would mix it themselves, or better still get one of their apprentices to do it for them. In Italy during the renaissance certain colours were cheaper to make than others. Ultramarine – a shade of blue – was expensive, and was made my crushing the semi-precious stone lapis. This stone was only found in Afghanistan and imported along the silk route to Venice. To reduce the cost these artists used another blue, called azurite, in their paintings, reserving ultramarine for the most important subjects. The chemistry that these artists used to create their artworks is learnt by conservators today. These conservators can recreate everything from the canvases, brushes and carved wood panels to the paints and pigments, and the glues and glazes that were used centuries ago.

When a piece of art is to be restored it undergoes a series of tests. Some of these are invasive, actually taking a sample of the paint for analysis, while others are non-invasive, using radiation. X-rays reveal whether the painting has been altered by over-painting in the intervening centuries. Infrared radiation can detect underlying drawings, revealing the artist’s original ideas. A microscope allows the conservator to inspect the type of paint used by the size of the paint grains. When a sample of paint is taken, its chemical composition can be found with a scanning electron microscope. All this information adds to an art historian’s knowledge of a painting, and helps the conservator protect and, if necessary, repair the painting.

Despite knowing the type of paint the artist used, a conservator won’t just paint over a painting to repair damage. Many believe the history of the painting itself is as important as the original piece. Instead, damage can be repaired if absolutely necessary by mimicking the original paint in a reversible way, using a synthetic modern paint which can be removed.

While paintings created centuries ago were generally made to last, to many people modern art is about ideas and tends to be more temporary. Artists may no longer use long lasting oil paints and they may work on poorer quality canvases. Conservators of modern art, such as those working in the conservation department of the Tate Gallery in London, now study how to store and preserve paintings produced in materials like house paint, such as the splatter pictures by Jackson Pollock.

As modern art changes radically every day conservators are confronted with increasingly difficult pieces of art to preserve. Even Damien Hirst had to recreate one of his most iconic works of art, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – often called The Shark – after 12 years of decay.

Some people question whether modern art should be preserved if that was not the artist’s original intention, while others question whether centuries old art should be cleaned of the changes they have acquired over the years. Despite these debates, institutes and art galleries around the world are working to conserve the art that exists today for future generations.

If you want to work with works of art, a background in science, technology, engineering or maths could help. You could be a…

  • Conservator working to preserve and restore works of art
  • Art exhibition organiser looking for funding and putting together an art exhibition for a new or established artist
  • Art valuer looking at the condition and value of works of art, and advising the owners or auctioneers of their worth
  • Art gallery curator creating exhibits of one or more artists, arranging art loans from different galleries around the world, and writing public information about the exhibition
  • Museum assistant working in small or large art galleries helping the public by answering questions about the gallery and exhibition
  • Fine artist creating works of art in innovative new ways


Conservation at the Tate – look at the techniques used by the Tate Gallery to conserve its paintings.