The conservation of paintings is the process by which paintings are stabilised, repaired and preserved. Restoration is a term more usually associated with the work to improve or recover the aesthetic qualities of a painting such as the removal of varnishes which have darkened over time (cleaning) and the retouching of lost or damaged paint. In fact, the terms are often used interchangeably, and treatments will often require and integrate aspects of both.
The conservation of easel paintings more specifically refers to the treatment of paintings (from any period) carried out on portable supports, most typically stretched canvases, wooden panels or metal plates. An exception is that paintings on paper may be treated by conservators specialising in paper supports, rather than by paintings conservators, depending on the medium used for the paint. Watercolours for instance would normally be treated by a paper conservator, though some conservators work across these disciplines. Paintings conservators often work in collaboration with conservators from other disciplines such as sculpture, or paper to treat artworks and there is also a well-established collaboration with art historians and curators.
Conservator-restorers are highly skilled practitioners (see Training and Careers) who are guided by codes of ethics which highly value the original material and intention of the artist. Their approach gives importance to the longevity and reversibility of treatments carried out. A deep understanding of paintings and of conservation practice is gained through training and experience built up over time. Paintings conservation-restoration includes the assessment of a painting’s condition and conservation needs prior to work being undertaken, and the documentation (with photographs and a written report) of that work. Treatments undertaken frequently include: the stabilisation and consolidation of flaking paint; repair of tears; lining in order to reinforce an aged and degraded canvas or the removal and replacement of a lining; repair of splits and other treatment of panel supports; the removal of surface dirt; the removal of varnish that has darkened over time; retouching or reconstruction of lost or damaged paint to re-unify the image; and varnishing. Preventive conservation also has an important role in the preservation of works of art, and this includes monitoring and advising on the environment in which a painting hangs, refitting paintings into frames to conservation standards and advising on transport and storage. Conservation can also involve technical study and examination of paintings using methods such as microscopy, x-radiography, examination using infrared and ultraviolet light and analysis of paint samples. Paintings conservator-restorers often specialise in some of these areas.