Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Defense for Mitigation of Aesthetic Irregularity as Preferred Conceptual Framework to Imperceptible Loss Compensation


“Just Make it Look Better.”

When inpainting areas of color loss on historic and culturally significant furniture complete imperceptibility is neither desirable nor necessary. The “six foot, six inch rule” is an oft repeated conservation proverb regarding aesthetically reintegrative treatments. The stated objective is that from six feet away (normal museum viewing distance) visual unification is achieved leaving repairs undetectable but upon close inspection (six inches) the repairs will be apparent. This rule honors the ethical standards to which we subscribe by allowing for detectability of inpainting. Conservators are not in the business of fine art forgery. They are trying to fool no one. Repairs are documented before and after treatment and are left to be conspicuous upon closer examination.

Additionally, by focusing on mitigation of damage rather than trying to render the repair completely invisible patina is preserved. This well-aged aesthetic value is almost universally revered in the sphere of decorative arts collectors and connoisseurs. 

A tertiary benefit is related to practicality. This ‘rule’ no doubt has a liberating effect on practitioners faced with unusually challenging repairs (such as cross grain scratches in a table top) or budgetary constraints of clientele.

Looking close at different angles reveals the inpainted portions

Close up shot of a skeleton mirror's new foot grafted on and inpainted

How does this relate to objects without cultural value?

 “…it is becoming more common for  people to bring their personal possessions- the stuff of everyday life- to conservators, something that the profession actively encourages…There is no shame in providing competent conservation treatment for these things.” – Barbara Applebaum, Conservation Treatment Methdology

With this we are faced with a dilemma. Seeing as ethical standards were born in a museum context (which implies these objects have cultural value) how should conservators develop treatments for everyday objects in regular use and/or where there are encumbering budgetary constraints?

 Applebaum says, “The answer lies in identifying the object’s values and focusing a treatment on the values the object has rather than on those that it lacks… when society at large does not have- and will likely never have- interest in an object, criteria appropriate for obviously preservation-worthy objects may not apply.”
If an object has no historic or research value to our culture but it is “just kind of pretty” and reminds the client of their grandmother, leaving an undesirably degraded finish completely untouched would be a failure to properly identify just what it is about the piece that is valuable. In these cases if the coating cannot be satisfactorily manipulated with solvents or overcoated, the piece is often stripped and refinished.

Pigments to be mixed into shellac for inpainting

If color loss compensation is desired by a custodian, the thoroughness and imperceptibility of restorative treatment can be adjusted to accommodate the budget of the client. Inquiring to triage the treatments is more likely to ensure a satisfied client, a visually satisfactory treatment outcome, and the conservator’s conscience to be at ease.

A painted seat that has scratches colored so that they aren't so visually distracting


This tension resolves then not in changing the quality of the treatments per se but rather by adjusting the thoroughness and imperceptibility of loss compensation. The appropriateness of treatments is determined by the values we impute to the object.

 “Just make it look better,” they say. Happily, the conscience of conservators of wooden objects can rest easy knowing that neither the absence of cultural value nor the budgetary constraints of their clientele mandate either violation of ethical standards or practicing at a discounted rate.

Sometimes, you just gotta make it look better.


  1. Hello,

    Are you trying to get at something like what David Pye is writing about in that one good book of his - can't remember just now the title, the book's upstairs in the closet? But it doesn't seem your writing so much about the object but more the subject or the restorer.


    Ernest Dubois

    1. Hello Ernest,

      I think you are probably referring to Pye's The Nature and Art of Workmanship. In that book he discusses many aspects of workmanship, the most cited being his distinction between the workmanship of risk (free and unjigged) and the workmanship of certainty (predetermined and jigged tasks).

      In this article I am merely making the case that there are times we need to change our mindsets. It is not always necessary to make our "touching up" scratches completely invisible. Sometimes there is benefit to allowing the repairs to be seen for what it is upon close inspection. Thanks for your interest!