Splendor in the good old-fashioned way
How to preserve memories? The atmosphere of the epoch we live in? How to get to know the things which have been inaccessible for years and covered with a thick layer of dust?
Paintings, which had appeared long before the first photographs, are the medium of the historical events, presenting well-known figures and their surroundings, but also their everyday lives and fashion typical for a given century.
As everything else, paintings also lose their splendor while being exposed to the test of time and unfavorable conditions. To help those which need some tweaking or a complete renovation paintings conservators start their work here.
I’m pleased to introduce you to my today’s interviewee – Magdalena Wsół, a paintings conservator who will show you her world, the one filled with the scent of paints and canvas.
Passion Piece: Could you tell my readers a few words about yourself?
Magdalena: Of course, with pleasure. My name’s Magda and I have been running Pracownia w Ramach (A Studio in Frames) since January 2021. The earlier mentioned studio is a space in which I deal with conservation and restoration of paintings so that they come back to their original splendor. I create technological and artistic copies of paintings, but I also paint icons and draw portraits. So it’s my own artistic and scientific place. I’m at the beginning of my business path and I’m still learning this new world, but I already like it very much. I have had wonderful and understanding clients so far. Hope I’ll keep up the good work.
Passion Piece: You’re and artist, but also a paintings conservator. How did you discover your passion for art and especially the one expressed in paintings?
Magdalena: As a six years’ old girl I attend art classes in a nearby community center. I participated in various contests and I managed to gain special distinction in an international competition… so I suppose that I had an artistic talent back then. I remember that during these classes I got to know many different techniques: acrylic, oil, watercolor pencils and crayons, plasticine, clay, dry and oil pastels and so on. And what about Miss Małgorzata? She was the one in charge of these classes and she gave as lots of freedom. I could combine all of these techniques together and I was trying to decide which techniques looked interesting when matched together. I truly enjoyed this creative freedom. At the beginning I used just a piece of paper, then a card and canvas – so I’m more into 2D forms – and they were my favorite medium of expressing the contents of my soul. Later on my life was connected with the art in a slightly different manner. I graduated from a music school in which I learned how to play the piano and the clarinet. I also trained figure skating for a few years. The art has always been present in my life, although sometimes in different forms. Travels with my parents, especially to Italy, influenced my perception of beauty and aesthetics, but also my culinary tastes. In high school the art came back to me when I was thinking of my matura exam and studies. I was in a class with extended biology and chemistry, as I was planning to study medicine or stomatology. However, I decided to move towards the direction which I felt was close to my heart – namely, the art. After my regular classes I had art history lessons which were led by the librarian, who helped me to go through the ancient to the early modern period. I attended some free lectures in the museums, I read all the basic coursebooks in the area of art history and in this way I managed to prepare myself to matura exam in this particular subject. I started my studies in the Institute of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków – which was a huge accomplishment for me. I put a lot of effort in it, especially in the senior class of high school, I would go to Kraków every weekend to attend art classes in paining and drawing. While commuting on the bus, I was trying to prepare to my matura exam. The studies were the combination of everything I like: the history of art, paintings, pre-modern art, chemistry and hard science.
Passion Piece: You don’t only create your own paintings, but also the copies of well-known masterpieces. How did you come up with an idea of creating such pieces of art?
Magdalena: I’ve had my first experience with copying paintings at the university during the classes related to techniques and technology of artwork. I felt like Vermeer with Cezannem put together. It was a difficult subject for me, I wasn’t the best at it, but it brought me lots of joy, I liked it. When it comes to my own art, I could never find myself in painting. The type of self-expression I preferred was drawing with pencils, coal and ink. Why copies? I truly appreciate the old techniques used by masters, the way how they improved them, how they changed over the centuries and what influenced these changes. Nowadays, we rather associate paintings with the canvas, and not too many people know that the canvas painting support was widely introduced in the 16th century, earlier painters used wooden painting supports, a good example is Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. I love reading treaties written by the masters, e.g. Vasari or Cennino Cennini and reproducing old mixtures of paints and binding materials. I feel as if I were an Alchemist! Besides this I truly respect old techniques, paintings created in such an old manner which have already survived for hundreds of years! It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?
Passion Piece: Are clients eager to visit your studio? Which artists are they interested in the most?
Magdalena: My studio has been opened for 5 months, it’s not a long time, but I’ve already had a few clients. I painted a copy of a 19th century artist, a copy of a Dutch 17th century painter and now I’m working on a copy of one of Gustaw Klimt’s paintings – so there is a wide range of artists and their paintings. I create copies on order, but also some to sell in my online shop. At the moment, I’m about to finish ‘The Lacemaker’ by Jan Vermeer and and icon depicting St. Francis. I deal with copies in the meantime, when I don’t renovate and mount different objects. I’ve just finished putting in the frame a reproduction of a Japanese painting, I’m also working on a conservation of a modern painting and an icon.
Passion Piece: Which order occurred to be the most extravagant?
Magdalena: Before starting my work on the copy of a painting by a 19th century Hungarian artist, my client asked me if I could change a few details in this copy. I was quite skeptical about this idea, but of course I listened to my client’s suggestions. He asked me if I could make the woman depicted in the painting slightly fatter (it was the main character in the paiting), so that she looked as if she had been pregnant. In the painting we can find a woman holding a little baby in her arms and there is one more child playing somewhere around her. At the beginning, I didn’t really know whether I should laugh or cry – and I don’t say that with a sneer – but after listening to the client I got to know that the idea had a deeper meaning to him, and the female character in the painting reminded him of his mother, when she was pregnant and the kids in the painting – his siblings. So I agreed to paint it in this way, due to the whole story.
Passion Piece: Icons have always attracted my attention with a kind of charm hidden in the images of saints. How is it working with this type of artworks?
Magdalena: I paint icons respecting their history and a traditional technique of egg tempera. I want to emphasize the fact that I don’t ‘write’ the icons, but I paint them. Why? I do it out of respect for believers, especially the Orthodox and the monks’ workshop, who in a different, more spiritual way write the icons. I think that quite many people – most possibly unconsciously – use the notion of ‘writing icons’, which doesn’t fully depict the way in which the icons are really created. For me working with icons is a form of meditation and clearing my mind. I often prepare painting support on my own, I prepare flat coat, polish and finish them. While creating icons I use various gilding techniques which require a great precision and concentration. I take care of every detail, the smallest hair on the saint’s beard. Surely, it’s a different, more relaxing form of work.
Passion Piece: You are a certified paintings conservator, it’s not a very popular profession. Which painting occurred to be the biggest challenge for you during the restoration works?
Magdalena: Yes, I graduated from the university in 2019 and I studied in the Institute of Conservation and Restoration of Works of Art, shortly before the pandemic spread. When it comes to paintings, the biggest challenge until this day has been restoration of my graduation painting – depicting Saint Mary with her baby. Before starting my work the author of the painting wasn’t really well-known – and despite the fact that it wasn’t the subject of my work – I really wanted to get to know who he was. So I changed the topic of my graduate work from a pure restoration of a painting to exploration combined with restoration and recognition of the studio in which the painting was produced. I must admit that I love researching things and I’ve had a chance to conduct quite a few researches in my life – of course, supported by some specialists in the right areas, such as physicists, chemists and photographers. Interpreting and comparing the examination findings was rather difficult, but fascinating.
Passion Piece: What do you love doing in your free time? What are your hobbies?
Magdalena: Besides my work, which is also my hobby, I like traveling, reading books (mainly popular science, but also the ones about the art as such), checking fine art auctions, photographing and trying new cuisines – my favorite dishes are the ones belonging to Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines. I’m quite an active person, although more of an introvert kind, so there are lots of things which I love doing on my own, but when it comes to cooking I enjoy doing it accompanied by other people and for other people. Preparing meals only for myself isn’t that much exciting for me. My specialty is kofta in the Egyptian style with rice and hummus or baked cannelloni – I love it!
Passion Piece: Which projects would you like to work on in the near future? The ones related to your own work or paintings conservation?
Magdalena: At the moment, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m working on the copy of a painting called ‘The Tree of Life’ by Gustaw Klimt and ‘The Lacemaker’ by Jan Vermeer. I also take part in the Polish branch of SIC – Sustainability in Conservation, which promotes ecological and balanced approach to conservation of monuments. Among others we share interesting tricks and tips showing how to use the things we already have in the work of an art restorer. I’m also working on two projects, my own electronic one, and in another one as a part of a team – I think I’ll tell more about them on my social media soon.
Passion Piece: Which motto would you like to share with my readers?
Magdalena: I don’t have my favorite motto, but through my own story, I’d like to motivate people who are afraid of quitting their current jobs for their own business. People who are afraid that as artists/craftsmen won’t do well while running their own firm. People who don’t perceive themselves as entrepreneurial and don’t feel they are talented enough to run their own enterprise. The effort is really worth it! Most of the times you’ll hear such an opinion form the ones who own their businesses for a few years and who have already gained quite a lot. Lots of people are demotivated by the fact that ‘pluses’ and ‘benefits’ will be available after two, three or four years. I’m just at the beginning of my business path. Of course, it’s hard. Sometimes I keep counting every single penny, but the satisfaction derived from working for myself, flexibility of my working hours, possibility of working from my own home or other places in the world is the thing that rewards our actions already at the beginning of our adventure. I believe that a craftsman can also be a good entrepreneur and it’s not the ability we are born with, but it’s rather something we acquire over the time and with our experiences.
Passion Piece: Thank you very much for this truly inspiring conversation and I hope we will be able to admire your new artworks soon!
See you around!
Photos by: Magdalena Wsół