Retouching, a taboo in paper conservation?


Retouch in conservation, an evolving discipline

Viollet-le-Duc as Saint Thomas

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 [1].
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

    Stain removal through retouching on paper
  • 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.
    Before conservation Joan Ponç "Gran Pastoral" (després )
    Gouache on paper in-painting treatment (before, after) Gouache on paper in-painting treatment (before, after)
    Gouache on paper in-painting treatment (after cleaning and cosolidation, after retocuh)

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 [2] 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.
Amélie Couvrat and Frances Lunn during the course Inpainting and Loss Compensation on Paper ConservationWe 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].

Share ALIKE mentioning AUTHOR and LINK


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.

Related content:

Inpainting and Loss CompensationThe value of thingsRestoration of school map poster from the spanish civil war period

Neutral colour: russian posters conservationMinimal interventionPosters Conservation: Virtual inpaint vs virtuous inpaint.

Gone with the windSōkō conservation for oversized sketches by Sorolla


[1] 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.

[2] 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).

8 thoughts on “Retouching, a taboo in paper conservation?

  1. just wonderful! I love what you’ve done. I agree with your ethics. I am sure your clients are extremely happy with those results.
    Can I ask what you did for lining the large gouache on kraft paper? Was it a complete overall lining after the infills? using what kind of adhesive and paper or cloth as backing?
    I am trying to ‘soften’ and relax a very brittle tempera painting on paper (not kraft but manilla or similar having been against acidic cardboard for 40-50 years.) And testing for what to line it with. No losses but cracks emenating from edges treavel as it is moved at all.

    • Dear Beverly,
      Thank you so much for such kind comments.

      For the linning of the gouache painting by Ponç I used Japanese tissue, two layers, with starch paste both of them.
      The infills were done with a buffered paper previously dyied to match colour. If you click on any of the images it redirects you to the portfolio of that project, there are a few images of the conservation treatment (one of them with the drawing up-side-down, during the infilling process, just before the lining.
      The japanese tissue layers were enough, and I feel more comfortable lining with washi paper rather than with fabric tissues.
      I hope that helps you on the decision making of your tempera.

      • Thank you for the speedy reply. I am doing tests now with Japanese tissue and WSP using a similar paper to the drawing/painting. I had thought of using Lascaux to ‘mount’ the artwork onto AF papered foam core, but tests show that to wrinkle the paper (replacement paper for the original drawing)

        • Interesting, Beverly.
          Maybe, instead of applying Lascaux on the object you can do some japanese tissue strips paste with WSP and then, use Lascaux to attach the strips onto the foam core?
          I don’t think I quite understand what you mean but I hope you get a nice result.
          Kind regards!

          • Are there any photos of the backing procedure for the gouche on paper? (I dont do FB)
            My original thought was to use Lascaux as the adhesive to attach directly to foam core without backing first. I was worried the moisture in WSP would cause wrinkling to the paper of the artwork. But if WSP and Japanese tissue works without the problem of wrinkling, then you have the option of mounting with or without out additional adhesive. Thanks so much for your replies to comments.

  2. Dear Rita,
    Thanks for sharing it is very interesting.
    I want to join workshop retouching. I work private conservator in Moscow. Is open to private conservators?
    Best regards,

    • Deaar Alina,
      There are still a few available places in the course “Inpainting & Loss Compensation on Paper Conservation“, in Barcelona, June 19th-21st.
      The course is tailored for paper conservators working either in private or public practice.
      We will discuss the aforementioned topics, and practice several different techniques: powdered cellulose, silicone mould casted textures, hand-made paper pulp…
      We will also provide a wide theoretical background: metamerism, light, creiteria, inpainting techniques (trattegio, neutral ink, etc.)

      Thanks for your interest1

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.