In his 21 years as an art conservator and restorer, Zhang Din has revived more than 6,000 paintings, some bearing the signatures of old masters such as Degas and Picasso, and local masters such as Affandi and Lee Man Fong. While Zhang received his training in Belgium, he responded to the lack of skilled art restorers in the region by establishing his current workshop, Art Conservation, right here in Singapore. His clients include private collectors, galleries, auction houses, and even the Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris when it came to town with more than S$1 billion of paintings in tow. Restoration work is no child’s play. It requires one to possess the precision of a surgeon, dedication of a craftsman, and knowledge of an art historian. We visit Zhang in his workshop to find out more about the art and science behind his craft.
Is conservation and restoration more art or science?
It is partly scientific, partly artistic, and partly technical. It’s an understanding of art. An artist and a restorer are bound by different rules. As an artist, you are creative and free to express yourself. But as a restorer, you cannot express yourself at all. The object is God. You have to pay 200 percent respect to it. You have to understand the painter’s materials and methods. You respect the original piece by doing as little work to it as possible.
What’s the difference between conservation and restoration?
In conservation, we try to keep the original matter as stable as possible without any invasion from an external hand. For example, if part of a painting is lost and you retouch it with pigments, that’s restoration. However, if the painting is yellow, and you remove the aging dirt or varnish, hence allowing the original colour to emerge – that’s conservation.
What sort of skills did you acquire while undergoing training as a restorer?
There’s the basic handling of materials such as learning how to make wooden and canvas panels. We also had to go to the museums to make copies of paintings to understand the artistic techniques behind each work. Then there is practical knowledge: grinding pigments, making a medium, dissolving mediums. Scientific knowledge of chemicals is important, too. You also need to have a historical understanding of the materials used to create art during each period.
What are the tools of the trade?
I have a daylight lamp which comes very close to the quality of natural light. It’s a very strong light which helps me in the retouching process as I have to see colours very clearly to match them accurately. I also use reversible pigments in the retouching process. If clients wish to remove it at a later stage, they can do so easily. There are solvents which help me to clean and remove varnish, overpaints, or aging dirt. Sometimes, I use hot air to help soften a layer of painting, too.
Is it an industry practice to document restoration work performed on a painting?
When I was in Europe, I came across museums that practised documentation. However, on the commercial front, it is not widely practised as it counts as extra work that will be charged for. Most private collectors or auction houses just want to restore the artwork to a condition that’s good for sale. When a client requests for documentation, we produce a report that notes all the original materials, historical background of the piece if necessary, and details of the conservation or restoration process.
What are some memorable pieces you have worked on?
I’ve worked on paintings by Degas, Picasso, Monet, Renoir. I’ve also worked on many top pieces by local masters such as Lee Man Fong, Affandi, and Hendra.
You’ve mentioned that restoration can be a lonely profession
It can be very quiet. Very lonely. You need a lot of patience. Many times, paintings take a couple of hours – or even longer – to retouch. I might listen to music to fill the silence. It is good to have some background noise.
What advice would you give to collectors looking to maintain their paintings in good condition?
Minimise temperature changes. If the temperature fluctuates, it will cause the paint and canvas to shrink and expand. If this happens daily, it can be very damaging. Relative humidity is important as well. If the level of relative humidity exceeds 65 percent, the painting will be susceptible to mould.
Words by Kok Hui Fen, photos by Albert Tan.
This story was first published in Gallery & Studio Vol 1, 2014.