Conservation FAQs

The conservators respond to some of our most frequently asked questions.

  1. What is the painting about?
  2. How long did it take the artist to paint?
  3. How big is it?
  4. Where has the painting been for the last 120 years?
  5. How long did it take to restore the painting?
  6. What paints do we use to retouch paintings?
  7. How do we replace missing bits?
  8. Is its history lost through restoration?
  9. How do you document the extent of the restoration carried out?
  10. Where is the painting on display?
  11. How do I become a conservator?

What is the painting about?

The Sirens and Ulysses is a story from The Odyssey, a collection of tales about the Greek hero Odysseus (whom the Romans called Ulysses), attributed to the poet Homer. The painting shows Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens, mythical creatures who lived on an island and lured sailors to their deaths with hypnotic and beautiful singing. To find out more about Ulysses and his escape from the Sirens, visit the tale of Ulysses.

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How long did it take the artist to paint?

From Etty’s own records, we know that it took only six months to paint The Sirens and Ulysses. Etty spent long periods in his studio, often painting for over ten hours at a time. He gained a reputation for being a quick and erratic painter, and was nicknamed ‘Il Diablo’ by his fellow artists. To find out more about William Etty and his paintings visit about the artist.

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How big is it?

The painting is about 10 x 15 feet (3 x 4 metres) and is made up of 5 separate canvases sewn together. The large central canvas has been expanded with 6 inch strips of canvas added to the top, left and right sides, and a smaller 3 inch strip sewn to the bottom edge. We don’t know whether Etty added these pieces before he prepared the canvas or once he had started painting.

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Where has the painting been for the last 120 years?

Because of its poor condition The Sirens and Ulysses has spent much of the last 120 years in long term storage, too fragile to display. It was rolled up quite early in its history and packed away, occasionally being brought out of storage for examination, conservation treatment, and short periods of display.

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How long did it take to restore the painting?

Conservation and restoration treatments began in 2003 and the project was completed in June 2008.

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What paints do we use to retouch paintings?

We use modern synthetic paints called Gamblin Retouching Colours. The paints are a pre-mixed combination of raw pigment and a synthetic resin called Laropal A81. We can use other paints made from mixing raw pigments and synthetic resins such as Paraloid B72 (an acrylic resin) or MS2A (a ketone resin).

We don’t use traditional oil paints for retouching, because it changes colour as it dries, becoming darker and more transparent. This would make it difficult to match a colour accurately. Usually all paint colours can be matched using a combination of titanium white, ivory black, cadmium red and yellow, Indian yellow and alizarin crimson. To these we may also add blue, green or orange pigments to reach an accurate colour match.

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How do we replace missing bits?

Areas where the paint has fallen off are repainted. We first have to prepare a new surface on which we can apply paint, filling defined areas of loss with putty made from a chalk and adhesive mixture (we use a water-based adhesive called Mowiflex).

As the retouching paints are applied very thinly, we use the filling material to recreate paint texture. The fills are sealed using varnish and then retouching is placed over the fill to mimic the colour of the paint layer. We determine colour and pattern from the intact original paint to give the impression of an unbroken surface. For video clips of the restoration process, see the timeline.

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Is its history lost through restoration?

This is a matter of opinion. Throughout its lifetime, a painting may undergo many periods of display, storage and treatment. All this is part of the painting’s history, its life story. As conservators, we are responsible for recording the history of the painting, throughout its deterioration and conservation. Rather than losing its history, we are adding to and preserving the painting’s evolving history. You can read some of our visitors’ opinions about this topic here.

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How do you document the extent of the restoration carried out?

Before work begins, we carry out a thorough examination of the painting and produce a full condition report and proposed treatment plan. After treatment we produce a second report that details the treatment carried out, materials were used and any further observations. Throughout this process we photograph the painting. Depending on the circumstances, we may use raking light photographs, transmitted light photographs, ultraviolet and infra red light photographs. We also take X-rays and carry out a scientific analysis of pigments and paint media.

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Where is the painting on display?

The The Sirens and Ulysses is on currently on display in gallery 9 at Manchester Art Gallery.

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How do I become a conservator?

There are several routes to becoming a conservator, and more than one field of conservation. Three universities in Britain offer Masters degrees in the restoration of easel paintings:

Northumbria University also runs Masters level degrees in the restoration of works on paper and in preventive conservation. The Courthald Institute also runs a Masters level degree in wall paintings conservation.
To take a conservation Masters degree you generally need a Bachelors degree or equivalent in Fine Art, Art History or Chemistry, although other degrees are sometimes accepted. There is also a Bachelors degree course in Conservation and Restoration at Lincoln University.