What Lies Beneath

The work of fine art conservator Katja Gibson.

“Hector and Andromache” by Gaspare Landi (1756-1830).

You’ve inherited a painting from your great-aunt—it’s something she valued and, thus, something you want to preserve, but a brownish fog obscures the figure of the woman whose portrait it is so that you can barely discern the image.

What the painting needs is a good cleaning by a professional art restorer. As a painting ages, it becomes fragile, its varnish yellows and dirt and grime accumulate on the surface, altering its appearance. But once cleaned, the work is transformed, revivified by the skillful hands of professional fine art conservators such as Katja Gibson.

“You must have an excellent work ethic and respect for the original art in your care,” says Katja, whose full service restoration and conservation studio in Falls Church works with clients ranging from small museums and art dealers to private collectors.

The profession is exceedingly demanding, requiring the skills of an accomplished artist as well as knowledge of chemistry, materials science and both world and art history. In addition, since so much of the work is detail oriented and slow paced, a conservator must have enormous patience. “It takes years to get to the point where one can take on a complex restoration and finish it successfully,” Katja explains. “It is very easy to cause irreversible damage.”  

Originally from Slovakia, Katja came to the U.S. in 1997, following her marriage to an American. “When I arrived here I thought it was impossible for me to be a conservator; no one was going to give me any serious work because I was an immigrant and I didn’t have any established credentials [in the U.S.],” says Katja. “It was hard; it took me many years to slowly prove myself.”

After she and her husband moved to the Washington, D.C. area, Katja, who had been trained as an artist, met Stephen Kniss, an established fine art conservator who was willing to take her on as an apprentice. The two became friends, Kniss serving as a mentor and providing a launching pad for Katja’s career.

But she arrived with years of training under her belt. As was the practice under the socialist system (Slovakia was then a part of Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite), Gibson was placed in a specialized school at the age of six. She was immersed in studio art, art history and, in high school, art restoration—which she worked at exclusively for four years. Later, she would earn her M.A. from the the Technical University of Kosice.

Today, Katja, 45, works on oil paintings that range in origin from the 15th century to modern times. One of her most challenging jobs was the 19th-century “Portrait of Margaret” by Charles Willson Peale. The artist used black paint that contained liquid bitumen (asphalt) which, after a fairly short time following completion of the work, underwent a dramatic chemical change. Wherever the black pigment was used, it separated, creating craquelure, which looks very much like alligator skin. “To repair such a painting is very difficult,” she says. “I had to carefully in-paint between the islands of paint with a tiny brush, filling in the lines. It was tedious and took a very long time, but this way the painting retained its high value. In many cases such paintings are routinely completely over-painted, which reduces their retail value significantly.”

The majority of the paintings Katja sees—more than 80 percent—have been restored before. A lot of what restorers do is address problems created by earlier restorations.

For centuries, artists were the ones who cleaned and repaired paintings. Though they had familiarity with the materials and knew how to fix problems, some didn’t always have the best intentions. Says Katja: “It was almost as if they had to prove themselves and say, ‘This may have been painted by a famous painter, but I can do it even better.’”

The profession of conservation and restoration is relatively new. Tracing its roots to the late 19th century, when positions for chemists were developed in museums, it really came into its own following World War I. During the conflict, paintings from Britain’s National Gallery were stored for safekeeping in unused portions of the London Underground. Damage to anything left there for many months was inevitable. With the need to clean and restore these priceless masterpieces properly so pressing, advances in the field were made and standards set.

Mysteries are often revealed when restoring a painting. Such was the case with a large portrayal of three children painted by Albert Hoit in 1831 that Katja restored. “When we took first photographs of the painting, we discovered a strange shadow where the carpet was painted that was not really visible in regular light,” says Katja. “When we examined the painting under ultraviolet light, we saw that the painting was significantly altered from its original condition. During cleaning, it became apparent there was a fourth child, a baby, sitting on the carpet. It had been covered up and painted over at some point. We can only wonder why. Every painting has a story. Did the baby die? We don’t know.”

The decision was left to the owner whether to uncover the baby or not. “In this case, she decided to put the baby back in,” says Katja. But “if it’s something that the artist himself changed, the practice is always to leave it untouched.” KatjaGibson.com

This article originally appeared in our Dec. 2015 issue.

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