The oil painting technique adopted by Korean artists of the early 20th century resembles in form and spirit the Western easel painting technique from which it originates. However, over the decades, Korean painters began to establish their own way of painting by exploring and experimenting with different materials and techniques, which resulted in diversification of forms and styles. Such use of new materials and experimental techniques employed by these artists requires the implementation of a different set of conservation measures from those implemented for artworks in the form of traditional western painting.
Conservators arrive at selecting optimum treatment strategies for modern paintings through in-depth research on the deterioration and damage found on these artworks and on the variety of materials used; these range from traditional easel painting materials such as canvas and oil paint to synthetic resin paints and many more unconventional materials.
Materials used for painting support could be a wooden panel, canvas or paper and these can be subjected to damage, such as deformation, tear or fracture. Such damage can lead to loss of the materials constituting the painting. Incorrect handling or inadequate environmental conditions can act as catalyzers of such damage. Vandalism, or deliberate destruction of an artwork, can also occur, albeit rarely. As distortion, tear, or damage of the support may lead to further deterioration of the paint layer and may also distract viewers, conservators regard such issues as problems that need to be treated in priority.
In a traditional Western easel painting, the layer of paint that serves to depict the images of the work is called the “paint layer”. A paint layer forms a relatively thin film, usually made of superposition of several layers adhering to the wooden panel, canvas or paper support. However, in the event of sudden changes in temperature and/or humidity, problems in production or storage, the paint layer may lose adherence and detach from the support.
The surface of a painting may collect dust and fine particles of the environment, dirt and grime may accumulate throughout the life of a work of art. There may even be fungal growth on a painting surface if it is stored in a high-humidity environment. The varnish layer that protects the surface of the painting may discolor and act as an obstacle to correct viewing of the artwork. Such damage will disfigure the painting, and also have a tendency to absorb moisture, which may be the cause of further deterioration. Overpainting, traces of vandalism or incorrect restoration are also considered as undesirable degradation that need to be removed during a conservation treatment.
This process concerns removing dust and stains on the painting’s surface, which allows the artwork to be appreciated in its near-original form. Dust and stains have a tendency to be hydrophilic (water-liking) and to attract moisture in the environment, which could engender further damages of the paint layer. Extensive testing should be carried out before cleaning a painting’s surface to see how the paint layer reacts to water or solvent. As this procedure requires a great deal of concentration and caution, it is only performed by skilled and experienced conservation professionals. If the varnish layer, forming the uppermost layer of the painting, has yellowed or deteriorated, it needs to be removed and a new coat of varnish can be applied. The materials and methods used in the varnish removal process should be selected very carefully to prevent any loss of original paint material beneath the varnish layer.
The painting support consisting of a wooden panel, canvas or paper can age and become brittle and fragile. Deformation, tear or loss of the support can eventually lead to the deterioration of the paint layer. An aged painting support can be reinforced with auxiliary supports such as lining materials or rigid backings. Deformations such as folds or undulations can be flattened with the help of heat and moisture. In the case of a tear in a canvas support, canvas fibers can be used to mend the tear or a piece of thin fabric is placed on the back of the damaged area for reinforcement. In the case of a tear or hole in a paper support, a paper insert or patch can act as reinforcement in the same way. These treatments are performed in order to maintain the flatness and durability of the support.
The paint layer of a work may lose its adherence to the support and lead to lifting, flaking and loss of paint. Areas that are in danger of further damage due to paint loss are stabilized with adhesives. Losses are filled and consolidation treatment is performed on the area around the paint loss. This reparative measure also prevents further loss of paint. The filled surface is modeled so as to imitate the surface texture surrounding the loss and is retouched with reversible inpainting material. This reintegration procedure will allow for the viewers to appreciate the unity of image of the artwork.