The traditional removal techniques, which involved softening added
layers of paint with organic solvent compresses before they are scraped
off with a scalpel, have been superseded by microscope-assisted
precision. The regular surgical scalpels have been replaced by
specialized micro-instruments. Macro- and microphotography are now part
of the daily practice of conservation quality assurance.
The results obtained after removing additional paint from icons have
improved thanks to these innovations. With the aid of a microscope, the
restorer is able to more accurately assess the paintwork and keep the
removal process confidently under control, whereas before, conservation
specialists in most cases only had their intuition to guide them when
clearing off added paint.
using micro-tools only a fraction of the size of the smallest scalpel, restorers
give the paintwork a much cleaner treatment without jeopardizing its integrity.
Removing paintwork under a microscope is certainly a much slower process, and
works do take longer to restore as a result. But the quality of the job, as
practice shows, makes up for it many times over. The new, microscope-aided
methodology made all the difference during the restoration of Stroganov icons,
known for their minuscule brushstrokes that require filigree precision during
restoration, including the 14th-century icon Boris and Gleb,
the late 14th- early 15th-century icon The Raising of
Lazarus, and others.
the practice of microscope-assisted paint removal progressed, restorers were
enabled to take a closer look at the old paintings, and their observations have
led to some adjustments to generally accepted ideas on the techniques and
know-how of traditional icon painting. The most important implications for
conservation practice stemmed from the discovery, in a great number of icons, of
mixed painting techniques involving the use of colored varnishes.
Lead restorer Rudolf Kesarev
completes the removal of additional paintwork on 16th-century
Tikhvin icon St.Luke the Evangelist. 2016
was generally believed by art historians that no varnishes were used in Russian
icons until the late 16th century. However, evidence collected in the
past few years has found that varnishes were used in icons as far back as the 13th-15th
centuries. The 13th-century icon Theotokos and Child Enthroned
with Sts. Nicholas and Clement in Attendance offers an interesting example
of the use of varnish-based paints. Yellow and reddish-brown varnishes were used
to paint the faces and in certain other parts.
Similar instances of complex, unconventional practices in icon painting have
proven fairly numerous,
forcing the conservation team to completely rethink the use of strong organic
solvents in icon restoration. Investigations have
shown that these solvents frequently cause irreparable damage to the paintwork.
The result is that today, solvent compresses are only rarely used by restorers
to remove later additions of paint. The principal emphasis is on “dry” removal
removal of additions to the original paintwork of several 16th-17th-century
icons from the Cathedral of the Dormition at the Tikhvin Monastery is arguably
the studio’s most significant accomplishment in the past few years.
Research plays a crucial role in the work of the Old Russian painting
conservation studio. A restorer who is well versed in the iconography, style,
and nuances of artistic expression of Old Russian painting, and who also deeply
understands the religious and philosophical concepts behind each work, will be
able to avoid many errors and more fully reveal the artist’s original intent.
The studio’s research has been presented in numerous reports at museum seminars,
Russian and international research conferences, and in various academic journals
that have published articles written by the conservators on the studio’s team.