Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Arty facts
Usha Albuquerque

The art scene has been transformed in recent years. In today's environment, works of art are acquired as much for their aesthetic value as for the increasingly safe investment they represent. The recent launch of an Art Mutual Fund indicates the importance investors are placing on the Indian art scene. Art galleries have mushroomed, exhibitions of works of art, and art auctions attract more than just connoisseurs and critics, and even artists can expect to eke out a decent living from their artistic endeavours. It is not surprising therefore that in such an environment, the role of the art restorer/conservator is gaining in importance.

Career in conservation

Restoration and conservation is a specialised skill that aims to examine, document, treat, and extend preventive care to art objects, and to bring old or existing works of art to conform as closely as possible with their original condition. Restoration and conservation covers all artistic creations such as paintings, murals, sculptures, manuscripts, textiles and other art objects.

India, with its wealth of antiques and artefacts, is in urgent need of skilled, qualified people who can preserve these treasures for posterity. Awareness of the need for a more scientific approach has come only recently to India, a need that becomes more pressing as an increasing number of works, due to neglect and ignorance, pass beyond any hope of restoration. Restorers are also required to distinguish between fakes and the original, as works of art continue to be smuggled out, and covered up through fakes.

Conservation work basically covers the preservation of all original art materials whether paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, cloth, metal etc. and their treatment to prevent further deterioration.

Restoration, on the other hand, involves repairing damage, where it occurs, by filling in the gaps in the canvas support and the paint layer to maintain the visual continuity of the work.

A restorer's job is to undo the damage done by time, ignorance, neglect and bad storage. Extremes of heat or cold as well as humidity expands and contracts canvases. Dust and in places of worship, smoke from incense or candles and other materials also affect works of art. Often the artists themselves paint with little thought of conservation, using materials that break down, fade, change colour or crack.

Skill set

A committed conservator must therefore have a full range of technical skill, experience, a fine sensibility as well as empathy with and respect for the object being handled. The correct attitude is one of minimum interference. For this reason, restorers must have a keen eye to judge the work's original appearance. They must also be conversant with the work of the period and of the artist in particular.

Restoration work also involves a great deal of complex chemical and other scientific treatment. During the process, care must be taken not to tamper with the original work. The job demands hours of painstaking effort. Sometimes it takes more time to restore a work of art than to create one.

Some paintings can be restored to their original appearance while others, like watercolours, cannot. The process, on a single oil painting, can take between fifteen days to one year to complete, depending on the extent of the damage.

Sculptures are restored in much the same way as painting. Manuscripts require approximately three months to restore, sort and arrange.

The restoration process is often carried out in various stages. This involves diagnosis which involves a visual and chemical analyses, using the latest laboratory technology, such as the infra-red and ultraviolet scans, X-ray and chemical and microscopic analyses to assess the damage and decide on the appropriate treatments for each. Then comes the cleaning which requires the careful removal of layers of dust, grime and corrosion from acidic paint. This `consolidates' the painting by arresting further damage and bringing out its original figures and colours. After that structural repairs are undertaken. The painting is given a backing, defects are toned down and holes are filled in with a variety of materials. Retouching or `in-painting' is the final stage of restoration. This gives continuity to the layer by filling up the large gaps which would otherwise be visually disturbing. This is a tricky business, as the authenticity of the painting must be kept intact. Only the area which has lost paint is worked on without any encroachment upon the rest of the masterpiece.

Start in art

Given the expertise required in this field, professional training is mandatory, as a damaged work could be ruined by an untrained person. Even after training, it is necessary to gain hands-on experience under an experienced guide. New entrants into the profession initially work under the guidance of an experienced restorer, handling larger responsibilities as they grow in expertise. It takes many years of experience before a qualified restorer is able to handle a work of art on his own.

To get into this specialised field you need to be good at art or painting, or any other art forms such as sculpting, handling textiles, manuscripts or photographs to work as an art restorer. Along with creative ability, you need to have a finely tuned visual sensibility, a quick observant eye, a mind for detail and an empathy with and respect for both art and the artist. In addition, a careful, steady hand, patience, technical skill, and a scientific temperament are added advantages. Most art restorers also specialise in a particular area of restoration and work only in those fields. You can, therefore, specialise in a particular period, that is, a particular art movement or a school of artists. You can also specialise in a particular medium, that is, in paintings, metal objects, murals, monuments and sculptures, manuscripts and paper objects. For manuscripts, you will need to work in conjunction with literary and textual scholars.

Course clues

Some colleges and universities offer courses in fine arts, or on the history of art. Graduates from these institutions then usually learn on-the-job, working as assistants to veteran restorers.

The Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology at the National Museum in New Delhi has set up a faculty for conservation science which offers full-time courses in art restoration and conservation. Graduates in any of the sciences are eligible for admission. Candidates with a knowledge of the fine arts, though, are at an advantage. Selection is made on the basis of an aptitude test, and approximately 10-12 students are admitted per batch. The Masterís degree is a two-year full-time course, while PhD would take five years. Some artists also join the course in order to understand the process of deterioration and be able to protect their own work. They also feel that the course gives them more practice and helps them develop a steady hand. The Institute also offers short-term certificate courses in Indian Art and Culture, and Art Appreciation.

The Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat (CKP) College of Fine Arts, Karnataka's premier art college offers a two-year job oriented certificate course in art restoration. This is a vocational course aimed at providing technical education for rural youth.

In recent years, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) has set up restoration facilities with some trained specialists. INTACH also organises training and capacity building workshops in the field of conservation, restoration and preservation of specific works of art in order to provide expertise and encourage community skills. INTACH also offers restoration and conservation facilities to private collectors and institutions.

Placement prospects

Although a number of laboratories and experts have been set up over the past decade, there still exists a large gap between the demand and availability of skilled art restorers and conservators in India.

Museums in India are also increasingly employing art restorers and conservers to help their curators who lack specialised knowledge of handling and maintaining art objects. The two most important organizations involved in art restoration in India are the National Museum Centres and the INTACH Art Conservation Centre.

Currently there are a few restoration centres at the National Museums at Lucknow, Delhi, and Calcutta. These National Museum centres look after their own art works and those of other state museums. By and large, their services are confined exclusively to government collections. Private art works are only taken on for restoration and conservation if that art object is marked as one of national heritage and importance.

The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), New Delhi engages in art restoration and conservation and offers its services to both private owners as well as to state run galleries and museums. The INTACH has recently opened centres in other cities in India as well.

Art restoration laboratories are springing up now with the increasing development of the art industry in India. Previously, the only art restoration laboratories were at Baroda, Kolkata and New Delhi but now there are art restoration laboratories in other cities that undertake consultancy and restoration work for private collectors as well. Private owners --- hotels, schools, colleges, libraries, old organisations like banks, and old companies, temples, churches, mosques, gurdwaras require trained people to help them maintain and restore their valuable collections. Some highly experienced restorers with their own studios and equipment have also begun to branch out on their own.

Libraries also employ art restorers and conservers to restore and preserve their manuscripts as well as other art objects they may have. Even auction houses employ art restorers and art conservers for such jobs. The prospects of art restoration are generally better in developed countries where there are large museums and private collections. Moreover, art restoration courses or degrees in fine arts from India make one eligible to work as art restorers in other countries, as there a wide quantity of Indian art objects stored in other parts of the world and which thus require specialised knowledge.

Money matters

The high price of raw materials coupled with the tremendous work and responsibility involved makes restoration an expensive business. Restoration and conservation of a single painting may cost tens of thousands of rupees. As such there are no fixed pay scales in private practice, the quantum of work and the time required to complete it are deciding factors for the fee. There is enough work in the field to make a good living out of this profession

In general, the average restorer earns between two and three lakhs per annum while a highly qualified expert can net Rs. 50,000 per month. Success in this profession is entirely dependent on the restorer's skill and sensibilities. It does, however, take many years of experience, working under an expert, before an individual restorer can launch into private practice.

Today, as antiques have become both a fashion and an investment more people are now realising that damaged objects can and should be restored. This has created a growing demand for skilled restorers and conservators. Restoration however, remains a limited enterprise at present. But those with an abiding interest in art who wish to take up restoration and conservation as their chosen profession can take heart from the fact that there is an acute shortage of trained manpower and so the career growth can only get brighter.

The writer is a noted career expert