Peter Malarkey

Fine Art / Painting Conservation

Painting Conservation Services

I have run a small business as an oil painting conservator since 1989. Services include consultation, documentation and treatment of collections and individual pieces, for private clients, government and municipal agencies, museums and corporations.

Overview: Contemporary Practice

The roles of Artist and Conservator differ at a fundamental level. “Creativity” in the artistic sense has very little application within the preservation field, as the conservator’s role is strictly to support rather than interpret the intent of the artist or culture of the piece being treated. This distinction could be reduced to a basic, if possibly oversimplified, opposition: The artist’s work is based on the visible results and the assertion of change to the object, while the conservator’s success is based on optical self-effacement and a strictly considered and minimized application of material change to the same piece. Historical objectivity and service to original artistic intent are ideals informing every aspect of contemporary preservation practice.

Current preservation ethics are defined and promoted by numerous, membership-based regional, national and international nonprofit organizations whose broader mutual mission is to support material research, education and ongoing discussion and public awareness of preservation standards. All technical information, material and ongoing developments in preservation theory have been publicly available for at least six decades, and are now fully illuminated in the digital domain. The activities and bylaws of these associations have reinforced ethical concepts which help the conservator define the scope of treatment, and which form the ethical guidelines for informed decision making. A handful of the most important concepts are summarized here.


All materials added to a cultural object by the conservator—adhesives, support materials, paint, varnish—must be identifiable and removable by a future conservator if needed, without impact to the original. For example, paint added by a conservator to hide a scratch on an oil painting would not be oil paint itself, as the newer and original oil paints would eventually become chemically indistinguishable as the added paint matures and hardens. The conservator in this case would use the same colorants if possible, but suspend them in a medium such as watercolor or reversible synthetic resin, which could be dissolved readily with solvents tested as safe for the original. This applies to all material additions, whether on the surface, within or behind the structure.

Definition of Scope

The goals for a treatment must be thoroughly defined and tested at the outset so that the object is understood materially and contingencies are defined as much as possible. The complete Treatment Plan, including retreat measures, should be in place before any work begins, and is based on thorough testing and communication with the owner.

Limiting Intervention

Everything deteriorates eventually. In assessing the condition of the object, the conservator must distinguish between damage or threatening deterioration and that deterioration which is following a natural course. For example, while it can be assumed that a painting will eventually develop a cracking pattern as the paint matures, it would be an error to prophylactically apply material to prevent or delay that cracking. Support material (in this case an adhesive prepared to penetrate fissures) would be added only after that cracking is becoming unstable and at risk of actual loss.

Risk Diminishment

All things are vulnerable to their environment. Public contact, weather, UV radiation and air quality are examples of contextual threats to a cultural object. A conservator’s scope identifies the liabilities to the object wherever it is stored or displayed, and includes measures or recommendations to identify and minimize those risks.

Uniformity of Care

All cultural property deserves equal material attention regardless of its subjective valuations. In support of historical objectivity, a conservator should give all artwork equal care, (and if in private practice, pricing) regardless of the variables of economic value or perceived importance.

Communication and Documentation

Responsible contemporary conservators communicate openly about practice among themselves, their institutions, the public and their customers. All parties to a treatment should be provided with photodocumentation, Preliminary Condition Report, Treatment Plan and Treatment Report as an important part of the ongoing documentation of the piece..

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