By Foekje Boersma and Sue Ann Chui

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How many of us pay attention to the words oil on panel when reading a label next to a painting hanging in a museum? The implications of this short phrase for the preservation of the painting are unknown to most of us. Paintings conservators are an exception. For these specialists, the conservation challenges presented by paintings on wood panels are all too clear. Unfortunately, there are only a few experts worldwide who restore these works, and even fewer new specialists entering the field.

To address the pressing training needs in the structural conservation of panel paintings, the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation have embarked on a multiyear project designed to increase the number of conservators in the field.

Panel Paintings

Paintings on wooden panels were common in Europe, especially in Italy and the northern European countries, up until the sixteenth century, when canvas became increasingly popular as a support. Many world-famous paintings are on panel—for example, the Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger. The Getty museum alone has over ninety panel paintings in its collection.

Panel supports, prepared by skilled woodworkers, were either made from a single piece of wood or constructed from a number of pieces joined together for larger paintings. In the case of paintings with complicated structures, such as polyptychs, the woodworker cooperated closely with the painter, who provided specifications for the manufacture of the support.

Wood, an organic material, continuously responds to changes in temperature and humidity. Its ability to absorb and desorb moisture from the surrounding air (thereby swelling and shrinking, respectively) makes paintings on panels susceptible to structural damage caused by climatic changes, including warping, twisting, and splitting—all of which affect the paint layer in a negative way. The worst of these processes can cause paint loss.

In most cases, after repeated cycles of swelling and shrinking in response to changes in the environment, paintings on panels are no longer flat, as originally constructed. The pervasive aesthetic notion that paintings ought to be flat (regardless of their substrates) resulted in various treatments to control the movement of wooden supports—movement that would damage the paint layer. A common way to impose flatness on a deformed panel (something that cannot in actuality be fully achieved) was to remove half or more of the thickness of the support and to attach a rigid structure, called a cradle. Probably the most extreme intervention was to remove the wooden support completely and to transfer the paint layer to canvas. In more recent times, with the growth of professional conservation approaches, less-invasive treatments have been developed that respect the original materials and construction of a painting.

The Expertise Gap

Conservation as a profession grew out of crafts with centuries of experience in manufacturing. The first generations of restorers were mostly trained in workshops as apprentices, and they had the strong hand skills necessary to make objects appear as new. With the development of the conservation profession, training and education moved from the workshop to schools and academic programs. At present, most conservation programs are based within universities.

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Conservation has gained much from having been formally recognized as a profession and from its move into academic education. The involvement of the sciences has resulted in a better understanding of degradation processes and of the long-term impact of conservation treatments. But new problems have emerged that impact a specialized field like panel paintings conservation. Traditional crafts are disappearing at an alarming rate. There is less time available for developing hand skills in the course of an academic education. And opportunities for specialized internships for graduate conservators to perfect their hand skills are diminishing. With the retirement of some of the few existing experts in panel paintings conservation—and the lack of young professionals moving into this field—a gap is forming.

This problem was identified by the Getty back in 1995. A symposium, "The Structural Conservation of Panel Paintings," held at the Getty Museum in April of that year, was successful in recording existing practices and knowledge. Since then, the published proceedings have become standard reading for the profession (they are now available online as a free download at www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/pdf_publications/books.html).

At present, however, the future preservation of panel paintings is threatened by the diminishing number of conservators with the needed expertise. For this reason, the Getty's Panel Paintings Initiative was established. The initiative seeks to increase knowledge regarding conservation problems and solutions related to panel paintings, as well as to increase the number of expert conservators.

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In order to update knowledge of the training and professional development needs of panel paintings conservators, a survey funded by the Getty Foundation is currently being carried out by Denmark's State Museum of Art in Copenhagen, in collaboration with the School of Conservation at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts; the survey should be completed by summer 2009. The results will inform development of the initiative's educational component, which will include opportunities for postgraduate and midcareer conservators to train directly with panel paintings experts through fellowships, residencies, and workshops.

As part of this initiative, the GCI, the Getty Museum, and the Getty Foundation are hosting the symposium "Facing the Challenges of Panel Paintings Conservation: Trends, Treatments, and Training," which will be held May 17–18, 2009, at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The symposium will highlight recent developments in panel paintings research and conservation, as well as feature a discussion of education and training needs.

In a future phase of the project, the Getty will make several important resources available online on the Conservation section of getty.edu. These include a searchable online literature database, online publications, and translated key texts, as well as other teaching resources that will be produced for future workshops or conservation training fellowships. These resources will be available to anyone interested in this field.

With this multifaceted project, the Getty hopes to address the expertise gap in panel paintings conservation, in order to ensure future generations of well-trained conservators in this specialized field.

Foekje Boersma was formerly a project specialist with GCI Education. Sue Ann Chui is an assistant conservator with the Getty Museum.

For more information, please visit the project Web site.