Retouch in conservation, an evolving discipline
Conservation has evolved a lot from its beginnings regarding criteria. From the restoration intending to give the object an aspect which might have never had, developed by Eugène Viollet-Le-Duc (19th century), to many nowadays’ tendencies that aim to preserve any single addition on the object with the idea that everything is as historically meaningful. There has been, and still is, a wide range of points of view.
Viollet-le-Duc put more emphasis on the recovery of the idea behind heritage (his idea), rather than to the preservation of a particular asset and its own features. This approach lead Eugène to portray himself as Saint Thomas in the recreation of a sculpture of Nôtre-Dame. He was an architect, so the assets he worked on were buildings.
Ethics are for sure the most controversial issue behind a conservation treatment, and probably retouching is among the most sensitive within this set of theoretical statements, since it means to establish the aspect a restored object is expected to have.
In-painting in paper conservation, three examples
All conservators need to deal with decision making and stance on criteria, and those specialized on paper have the drawback that reversibility cannot probably be achieved as straight forward as in other specialities, if ever full reversibility has existed .
Here you have three examples of loss compensation on paper. Some of them cover stains and some cover losses, some of them are done on the same original artwork, while other on the infill. Some intend to be the least visible possible, some intend to be visible at a certain distance. In some the loss is “devised”, while others do not involve such critical guesses. Some are fully reversible, others not that much.
I hardly ever feel fully satisfied whenever with these sort of treatments (am I the only conservator that no matter how much I restore keeps on seeing stains and damages?). But still I think that retouching has improved the final outcome providing the object consistency and readability; and always seeking to do do it the most reversiblepossible and least invasive.
- Example #1:
This page belongs to an Art book about Dalí’s work, with a felt-tip pen dedicatory on the first page by Salvador Dalí (first image). The page had a glue glob next to the signature. I removed the glue bulk but then the different oxidation degree provoked that the paper was less yellowed where the glue drop laid (2nd image). Reducing oxidation by washing the paper was not considered because of the risk of the felt-tip pen signature to bleed. The last image shows the stain after applying a watercolour layer to make it the least visible possible
- Example #2:
An oversized gouache drawing, quite dirty and degraded. After cleaning and consolidating, the losses where in-painted on the original with gouache, using a paler tone (Low level criteria). Although abundant, the gaps were small and none of them required an interpretation of the drawing lines. No barrier layers were applied because all tests caused shifted the original tone and because most of them were really small.
- Example #3:
Another oversized gouache drawing with comparable features to the previous example and similar treatment (wet cleaning and consolidating) but in this case the losses where in-painted on the infills, with watercolour and gouache. In this occasion the in-painting criteria was mimetic on the small losses, intending to re-create the drawing, and a neutral colour field on the bigger ones. The conservator doesn’t mean to equal the Joan Ponç’s genius hand, but in this particular drawing with somehow chaotic lines all over the surface, the losses were confused at a first glance with painting lines and strokes. In my opinion the non-retouched losses mislead the appearance in a higher degree than possible distortion lead by a personal interpretation of the tiny retouched gaps. On the biggest loss, in the left bottom corner, a recreation of the loss was far much complex (maybe not that much if I had Viollet-le-Duc’s courage), so I thought better to leave a neutral colour field, in a way that the observer can understand it as a loss and not part of the object. The loss is therefore not too highlighting nor disturbing either.
Is loss compensation a taboo in paper conservation?
Book and paper conservation is mostly attached to library and archival material, and this might be the reason why inpainting and retouching has been considered as a secondary aspect in the whole conservation project, as opposite to painting conservation, for instance, in which the way to achieve a particular final aspect is openly discussed.
Is it possible that there is some sort of taboo regarding in-painting in paper conservation?
My opinion is that the looks of an historical object is often almost as important as the physical-chemical condition of the matter that supports it, and not intervening provides poor results that might mislead its readability more than the lack of intervention.
I am giving for granted that this loss compensation has to be done as a result of a thorough study of the object, its function, meaning, context on the collection, and only after all previous treatments have been explored and exhausted (cleaning, consolidation, application of barrier layers, etc.).
Maybe this taboo feeling is due to the assumption of minimal intervention, the paradigm that states that conservation has to be the less invasive possible, leading in the worst acceptation to passivity, to the idea that nothing is reversible enough, distinguishable enough, invisible enough, neutral enough… uh! That it is simply better not to do anything at all. This might risk to lose skills  on inpainting and also to polarize conservation principles in private and public practice.
Precisely because it is a tricky issue, it should be done the better possible (the most reversible, even if not 100%, the most neutral, the least invasive, etc.) by expert professionals. This should unify the current standards instead of polarizing them. Speaking out loud about the issues that we come across when retouching, in-painting and intervening on loss compensation in general, can only lead to an improvement of approaches, techniques and results.
We might all agree that loss compensation is a process that needs to be considered case by case. Even if using software resources to achieve the least arbitrary outcome, the most neutral intervention, there is always a necessary sense of good taste behind it. And this taste or criteria can only be achieved with a collective experience, practice and a background of examples the wider the better.
[And, by the way, there are still a few available places in the course Inpainting & Loss Compensation on Paper Compensation, you can still subscribe here].
The city Council of Sant Cugat (Barcelona, Spain), for providing me the opportunity to work in such a nice object (Example #2) and also the private owners of the 1st and 3rd examples. All these objects required tricky decision making and an acceptable visual result was quite important, making all these conservation treatments challenging and enriching to me. Thanks a lot!
Poulsson, Tina Grette: «Retouching of art on paper», de Archetype Books, London (2008). ISBN-10: 1904982131, ISBN-13: 978-1904982135.
 Reversibility – Does it Exist? British Museum Occasional Papers, #135. Andrew Oddy, Sara Carroll. British Museum Press (December 31, 1999). ISBN-13: 978-0861591350, ISBN-10: 0861591356.
 Jonathan Ashley-Smith (2016) Losing the edge: the risk of a decline in practical conservation skills, Journal of the Institute of Conservation, 39:2, 119-132, DOI: 10.1080/19455224.2016.1210015 Ashley-Smith has also commented himself this paper in an IIC post (click here).