Shan Kuang jokes that she got scolded one too many times for getting too close to paintings at museums, so she made it her job.

Either she or Peter Van de Moortel looks over every piece of artwork that enters or exits the Kimbell Art Museum.

Kuang is the Fort Worth museum’s conservator of paintings and Van de Moortel is the chief conservator. Together, the pair research and treat works within the Kimbell’s own collection, in addition to lending their time and expertise to other museums.

If you go

What: Conservation panel on “The Past, Present, and Future of Conservation at the Kimbell.” Learn more here.
10 a.m. April 22
Location: Kimbell Art Museum
                3333 Camp Bowie Blvd.
                Fort Worth, TX 76107

The pair have a vast array of pigments, paintbrushes, books and chemical solutions at their disposal. 

Some days might be spent cleaning and retouching works, researching and writing reports or using X-rays and microscopes to learn more about the first draft of a painting or the materials that were used to make it.

“We are very lucky in that our work day is never the same,” Van de Moortel said.

Though they might spend several weeks or months on trying to showcase a piece’s original glory, they aim to make their work as unobtrusive as possible.

“If the conservator did their job well, you wouldn’t know they had their hand in it,” Van de Moortel said. 

‘What do I have to add to all of this’

Both Van de Moortel and Kuang are adept at handling a paintbrush, and while they enjoy using it, neither would call themselves artists.

“I find that working with great art and having the privilege to work with and be surrounded with great art all the time makes you incredibly humble when that question arises: What do I have to add to all this?” Van de Moortel said.

Kuang also agreed that humility is key to doing the job well.

“One might have certain conceptions coming in about what a piece of artwork needs. But, really, you have to let the artwork dictate that to you,” Kuang said. “Sometimes it’s straightforward. Other times, it’s a full treatment, a varnish removal.”

The process for removing the varnish can take several weeks or months, but the effect is similar to driving with a freshly cleaned windshield versus a dirty one, which can make you lose your sense of perspective.

“If you look side by side, suddenly you realize how dark the varnish was and how the range of colors was muted; it dulls down what was a bright and lively painting,” she said.

During a restoration, conservators take care to make sure that their changes are long-lasting, but not permanent.

“If the treatment of a painting lasts 70 years, that is infinitely preferable to 30 years because you don’t want to subject the work to more cleaning than it actually needs,” Van de Moortel said. 

‘It’s as close as you can get to turning back the clock’

Several paintings that the conservators work with were created hundreds of years before either Kuang or Van de Moortel were born.

Technology can help shrink that distance, but many of the tools they use weren’t made with this specific purpose in mind, but, rather, were borrowed from other disciplines.

“Some of our analytical tools like X-radiography come from the medical field. Our infrared reflectogram set up is actually from the military,” Van de Moortel explained.

These tools help them look at multiple layers of the painting, including the underdrawing that the artist might have sketched out as an early guide, or see previous drafts where a detail was changed or a person was painted over.

“You can see something that’s completely invisible to the naked eye or, if you’re lucky, a whole different painting is underneath,” Kuang said. “It’s as close as you can get to turning back the clock and peeking over the artist’s shoulder.”

They also have the ability to make an elemental map, which helps them determine what materials were used and when.

“It may sound very specific (to know) there’s copper here, cobalt there, but in the grander picture, all of this information helps scholars determine more information about the artist’s work and practice,” she explained. “There’s always questions of who actually painted this, whether it’s the artist, the studio or a follower, so those are all important pieces of evidence to have.”

During Conservator Emerita Claire Barry’s tenure at the museum, an X-ray revealed a finished portrait of a young girl beneath James Ensor’s “Skeletons Warming Themselves.” The Belgian painter is suspected to have reused a canvas due to financial difficulties.

Left: James Ensor, Skeletons Warming Themselves, 1889, oil on canvas, 19 7/16 x 23 5/8 in., AP 1981.20. Right: X-radiograph of James Ensor, Skeletons Warming Themselves. Left: James Ensor, Skeletons Warming Themselves, 1889, oil on canvas, 19 7/16 x 23 5/8 in., AP 1981.20. (Courtesy images | Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth Texas)

The tools and expertise the Kimbell has on hand make it a sought-out resource for other museums in Fort Worth, like the Amon Carter and Sid Richardson, and the Meadows Museum in Dallas.

Both conservators consider their roles, getting to work with so many different works of art, a privilege.

“There’s a moment where vulnerability seeps in,” Van de Moortel said. “You’re spending so much time with that piece. And very few, if any one, will know that particular piece as well as you do in your lifetime.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta FornoffArts & Culture Editor

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...