From the Conservator's Bench: On the Road, Jackson Hole

Robert Bateman, The Challenge-Bull Moose
oil on masonite panel, GM 0127.2432

The conservator moved her bench to the National Museum of Wildlife Art (NMWA) in the picturesque town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to examine the Gilcrease Museum painting The Challenge-Bull Moose, by Robert Bateman. The Challenge is on loan to the NMWA, Gilcrease's sister museum in the Museums West consortium.

Museums regularly loan objects and art to other institutions for exhibit and research. In this way, exhibits can have greater impact, and a broader audience can view Gilcrease Museum treasures. Gilcrease Museum has a warm and collaborative relationship with the NMWA. They have a Gilcrease Gallery and frequently include Gilcrease Museum paintings in their exhibits.

The Challenge is extremely popular among NMWA visitors. The painting is a powerful image of a bull moose appearing to confront the viewer, perhaps warning the viewer of imminent harm if he comes any closer, or perhaps just making his way through the thick forest underbrush.

The Challenge was in storage for a few weeks this summer, in preparation for reinstallation in a new reinterpretation of the NMWA galleries. This brief hiatus provided Victoria Book, chief conservator of Gilcrease Museum, a wonderful opportunity to thoroughly re-examine the painting to evaluate its condition and study it in depth.

Close-up study resulted in some interesting observations and conjectures. The image is mainly composed of earth tones: browns, grays, yellows, and whites with occasion strokes of red and orange paint punctuating the underbrush. Stylistically, the image is naturalistic but not photorealistic. Application of paint is mostly thin, but with subtle impasto around contours. Paint is applied wet-on-wet and, to some degree, mixed on the canvas resulting in areas of uneven texture including fissures and resist patterns. The sheen of the painting is also highly irregular. Some areas are very glossy and reflective, while others are matte and dull.

Detail of The Challenge-Bull Moose showing resist and fissures patterns.

A discrepancy in the provenance file might explain both phenomena; the uneven texture and the uneven reflectance. A publication by the artist labels the painting as "oil on board," but most of his paintings are in acrylic paint, and a conservator who treated the painting in 2003 called the medium "acrylic" based on the way a bit of paint tore from the edge when damaged but was easily reintegrated. Oil paint has a natural glossy reflectance and becomes brittle as it cures, while acrylic paint can be easily manipulated to have either a glossy or a matte surface and remains flexible long after it dries.

NWMA has several Bateman paintings in the collection, so Book examined a selection. Bateman's acrylic paintings have matte surfaces and are highly detailed images, while his oil paintings are highly reflective and usually more loosely painted. If the artist mixed media and techniques while painting The Challenge, incompatibility between paint layers and paint media may result in the appearance of separated paint mixtures. It would also explain why some areas are glossy while other features are matte.

"A short, serendipitous visit to check on this painting in Wyoming turned into a fascinating technical art historical finding," Book said after discovering the mixed techniques used in the painting.

Bateman is a contemporary artist, and officials at NMWA will be in contact with him to ask his assistance in solving the mystery, which emerged with Book's observations during her treatment and examination of the artwork.

If you have questions about artistic techniques or preservation, contact