Richard Wolbers workshop

9th, 10th & 11th of December 2015 in Hilversum

door Amelie Schwark, freelance paintings conservatoR

The workshop “New Methods of Cleaning: Aqueous Gels” was organised by the Art Restorers Association (ARA) and held in the highly pleasant atmosphere of Nora van der Veer’s studio in Hilversum. The group of participants consisted of fifteen conservators of various specialisations and backgrounds.

During the workshop, participants learned how the different components of Wolbers’ cleaning system work and how to use them in practice. Lively discussions ensued during the PowerPoint presentations, and in the practical part, participants used the opportunity to mix cleaning agents and try them on dummies as well as on objects they had brought themselves.

Richard Wolbers, who studied biochemistry as well as fine arts and arts conservation, is well known for the considerable influence he and his cleaning systems have on the field of conservation. Skillfully combining his knowledge of chemistry and fine art, he developed new approaches to surface-cleaning which have been inspiring conservators all over the world for more than 25 years now. He also encourages restorers to use techniques from other fields like the cosmetic and food industry for their purposes. This includes not only various gelling agents - like Agarose, Velvesil Plus and Xanthan gum - but also, for example, silicone forms intended for baking cookies (useful for making little agarose plates) and little mixers that are usually used to make milk foam for coffee – all cheaply available.

Onderzoek met UV-straling afb. 1 - Richard Wolbers giving a lecture
(photo: author)

Onderzoek met UV-straling afb. 2 - Richard Wolbers giving a demonstration of cleaning (photo: author)

The aqueous cleaning programme introduced by Richard Wolbers basically consists of five components, which are water, a pH buffer, a chelating agent, surfactants and gelling agents. When it comes to cleaning water-sensitive surfaces (like gilded surfaces), emulsions can be mixed by adding a low percentage of water/buffer to a solvent-based gel (for example the silicone solvent gel Velvesil Plus). For a higher percentage (30-40%), Wolbers presented Shin Etsu (KSG- 210/310/710/350Z), which can be used to clean acrylic paint, for example.

Even though surfactants seem to be such a crucial element of this five-component-system, Wolbers says that usually they do not add a lot and can be left out. He even warns about using them, because they are not completely removeable and can change the surface properties in a way that attracts more dirt.

Detailed information about Wolbers´ cleaning methods can be found in “Wolbers, R. 2002. Cleaning Painted Surfaces: Aqueous methods. London: Archetype Publications”, which should by now be part of every decent restorer’s literature collection, as well as in several articles like

“A New Approach to Cleaning I: Using Mixtures of Concentrated Stock Solutions and a Database to Arrive at an Optimal Aqueaus Cleaning System” by Chris Stavroudis, Tiarna Doherty and Richard Wolbers in the WAAC Newsletter Volume 2 (May 2005, p. 17 – 28)


“The Modular Cleaning Program in Practice: Application to Acrylic Paintings” by Chris Stavroudis and Tiara Doherty in Smithsonian Contributions to Museum Conservation Number 3(p. 139 – 145)

These articles were both provided to the participants before the workshop; an additionally recommended are two highly elaborate reports about similar workshops in former editions of the Au Courant:

“New Methods of Cleaning (painted) Surfaces, 11 t/m 15 juni; twee theorie dagen op de Reinwardt Academie, Amsterdam en drie praktijk dagen op het RCE in Rijswijk.” by Maurice Steemers in the Au Courant nr. 2, October 2012, p. 16-17.


“Aqueous Materials and Methods: DOs and DON’Ts, Raising Awareness on the Possibilities and Safe Bounderies of Surface Cleaning. Richard Wolbers en Paolo Cremonesi, 30 juni t/m 2 juli 2014,UPA (Universidad Politécnica de Valencia), Departemento de Conservación y Restauración de Bienes Culturales, Spanje” by Aleth Lorne in the Au Courant Nr 8 October 2014, p.12 -13

You might think, after so many publications and workshops having been held – also in the Netherlands – that attending such a workshop is not necessary any more, but in that case you could not be more wrong. Even though you can easily access all the theory, you still need a lot of practice to be able to see all the possibillities available with these methods and how to apply them successfully to a certain project. Even participants attending their second or third workshop on this subject told me that they were still learning a lot and that the course was highly enriching for them.

For me, meeting Richard Wolbers for the first time, it was particularly inspiring to see how passionate he still is about these methods and discussing them with others, and that he keeps looking for new inventions, new approaches and new challenges. This makes me look forward to his next workshop in the Netherlands; I am very curious what his latest inventions and discoveries will be by then and which objects the participants will bring to challenge him. I am sure that no matter what – armed with a milk foam mixer in one hand and a pH-meter in the other, he will certainly find a solution.

Lees over de samenwerking van Richard Wolbers en De Kunstkliniek...