Wales is a friendly New Hampshirite who aspired to be a professional artist during his training at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He met his partner in Istanbul, where Wales went to help restore Byzantine mosaics.
Tsaousis was a former tailor who had been asked by the director of Istanbul’s Byzantine Institute of America to learn conservation. The men are among the few conservators in the United States who specialize in restoring mosaics and paintings done on wood.
Their delicate work requires thorough knowledge of painting techniques and art history. In addition, modern chemistry has introduced them to improved methods of restoration.
“Paintings take months, sometimes more than a year, to restore,” Wales comments. “We spend so much time in front of each canvas that anything that saves time and effort is welcomed.”
Modern acrylic paints, which do not darken with age (as oil paints do) and which can be removed without destroying oils below or around them, have eased their task.
Another favored innovation is PVP (polyvinylpyrrolidone), a GAF Corp. chemical that has many uses, ranging from consumer cosmetics to decontamination of astronauts returning from the moon.
The conservators use PVP plus long-fiber, wet-strength paper (the same stuff that tea bags are made of) to protect the paint on a canvas being restored.
“Canvases tend to stretch and shrink, stiffen and loosen as they are affected by temperature, humidity and time,” explains Wales. “With all this moving around, the paint on the canvas cracks, then begins to flake off.
“To prevent this from occurring any further, we attach an aluminum and muslin lining to the back of the canvas with wax. The wax takes the place of glue, which is an animal product and therefore tends to dry up and lose its effectiveness with age.
“The stiff backing is applied with a heavy press. If we don’t protect the painting it will come off on the press, so we make a sturdy, opaque shield by applying the special paper with PVP. The facing adheres until time for retouching the painting, when we remove the paper with water.
“Most conservators use wheat paste on the facing, but that is much more trouble — it has to be mixed with an egg beater and then strained.”
Wales and Tsaousis heard about the chemical from a fellow conservator, Morton Bradley of Arlington. In like manner, they broadcast their own “finds” because, Wales says, “All conservators have the same goal — preserving old and valuable art. There is plenty of work for good restorers, and word should be spread on the right materials.”