She uses a scalpel. She mixes dangerous solvents and creates soapy concoctions using chemicals with long names. And she wields paintbrushes and paint.
A doctor? A chemist or a painter? Art conservator Betsy Court is a bit of all three. As chief conservator of paintings at the Balboa Art Conservation Center, the native Virginian spends her time healing paintings with the help of science and intuition.
Court and her colleagues restore grand paintings by the likes of El Greco and obscure pieces of art that ordinary people bring in for repair. Their goal is to remove layers of gunk that have built up for years or even centuries, from grime and varnish to reminders of botched previous attempts at restoration. They also fix damage and resurrect forsaken frames.
Just in time for her 30th anniversary at the center this month, I visited Court at her Balboa Park workspace as she restored a 16th-century Spanish painting of a middle-aged St. Peter. It shows him as a balding man — not yet the familiar white-haired patriarch — and carrying his emblem, the “keys to heaven.”
The San Diego Museum of Art, one of the conservation center’s 18 members, had sent the 31-inch by 21-inch painting over for repair. Its colors have dimmed. It is pockmarked with holes where Court has removed remnants of previous attempts to repair the holes.
We talked about her job, the painting’s prospects and a wayward body part.
What are you doing with this painting?
When I first saw it, it was very dark and very shiny. It had four or five layers of varnish that had discolored as it aged, so it had an orange-brown mahogany tone all over. A past restorer had painted over damage, but way beyond where the damage was.
The curator thought that underneath it all was a nice painting.
So I’ve been gradually going back down through the layers to get back to the original color.
How do you figure out the painter’s original intent under all these layers?
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It’s not an easy thing. Needless to say, this artist is long dead. We don’t even know who he was; he’s just referred to as the Astorga Master, named after the town in Spain he came from. One of the reasons that this painting is in such poor condition is that it’s only recently that Spanish 16th century art began to be appreciated.
Before we do anything to the painting, we do a thorough examination. One of our most important tools is the microscope, or we can look at it in ultraviolet or infrared light or take an X-ray. If we’re really not sure where the original paint ends and the later additions start, we can take little tiny samples as big of the head of a pin, embed them in plastic and look at them under a microscope. We can stain them or look at them in ultraviolet light to separate them.
How many different layers are in this painting?
You’ve got the wood panel, then the fibers — hemp or something like that — on top of that. And the gesso layer (a kind of primer). Then you have the oil paint, which may be built up in more than one layer as well.
(In the area of gilding) the gesso has a bole — a thin layer of red clay — and the gold on top of that. Then there’s a varnish over the whole thing.
Later, restorers have added new material on top to try to compensate for damages. In this particular case, I found two different types of restorer’s fill material as well as this pink wax. And there are at least four layers of later varnish on top and glue and dirt. All of those things have to be systematically unpacked layer by layer to get to the original.
Court had discovered a surprise in the bottom left corner of the painting: what appears to be the red clothed knee of another saint, probably St. Paul. A previous restorer had painted over the knee, which presumably came from a companion painting that was once paired with it in an altarpiece. The other painting is now lost.
What will happen to the knee?
Now there’s a decision: What do you do about a knee without the rest of the person? That’s where we consult with the curator, and that’s his call. Does he want me to paint it out again? Likely not. He will describe it in the label or the catalog, and it will add to the context of the painting.
Court and her colleagues work with a variety of potentially dangerous chemicals. Venting devices pull fumes from their work stations, and Court sometimes has to wear gloves, protective glasses and a respirator as she mixes chemicals to create solvents and soaps.
How has your work changed over the last couple of decades?
Cleaning has changed a lot, and our tools and understanding of how the chemistry works. We have more understanding of how these things interact with the original paint.
How long will it take to fix this painting?
This one will take several hundred hours. I cleaned this little bit right here (an area about the size of two quarters) this morning.
To me, working away under the microscope for a long period of time can be very relaxing. The part that’s less relaxing and more challenging is trying to figure out how to do it, solve the problems. It can be frustrating when there are things that are difficult.
When you’re done with this work, what will be different about this painting?
The big thing would be the difference in the color. It used to be dark brown. When it’s finished, you’ll see blue, pink, green, purple and red, and it’ll look brighter and much less murky. And you’ll see much more depth. It used to look flat.
And you’re not going to see all this damage.
Do you think he’ll look better than he has…
For a couple hundred years? Yes I do.
Do you work on people too, take a few years off?
Oh, if I could. No, the people who work on people make a lot more money.