'It can feel like a huge responsibility'

Louise Hackett, 25, is a painting conservator at Manchester Art Gallery

What does your job entail?

It involves everything that you can do to prevent damage happening to a painting, and to fix existing damage. Art conservators might help museums to prepare for the possibility of fire or flooding, research new preservation techniques, and restore paintings by removing layers of dirt and varnish, and repairing the surface image. We're trying to clarify and reintegrate the elements of a painting so that people can see what is depicted.

What is your working day like?

The hours are 9am to 5pm. The paintings are usually moved from the gallery to our conservation studios, because you have to concentrate intensely, and that can be hard in public.

You start off with structural work – cleaning, repairing tears, and removing old restoration work. Often, the paint will start to flake, so I put adhesive under the tiny flakes to ensure that the paint is stable. Then I can move on to retouching. The other half of my time is spent on paperwork, liaising with exhibitions and sorting out painting loans, as well as talking to schools.

What is the best thing about it?

As a child, I loved bric-a-brac sales, but I was never interested in the perfect things – I always wanted to find things that were damaged, so I could mend them.

I love getting so close to a painting, to be able to touch its surface and realise that, 300 years ago, someone spent hours trying to get a tiny detail around an eye or a hand exactly right. You get to feel bizarrely close to the artist.

What's difficult about it?

It's a huge responsibility and that can be stressful. I've worked on paintings that are very valuable, but more importantly, treasured by people. If you make a big mistake, you will have done something for which people will never forgive you.

What skills do you need to do the job well?

You need a very high level of manual dexterity, because you have to use very precise, tiny tools. You don't need to be able to draw, but you do need a very good eye for colour. You have to work to a tight schedule, so you should be well organised and be able to work under pressure. And you need perseverance and stamina – I've spent nine months retouching one painting.

You also have to be analytical, and up-to-date with scientific developments. One of the biggest avenues in conservation is research. Some people dedicate their careers to finding new ways of preserving and storing paintings, and inventing new materials.

What advice would you give someone with their eye on your job?

Visit museums and try to look at paintings in terms of what might be going on under the surface – teach yourself to see paintings in a different way. Sometimes, a painting that looks fine on the surface isn't structurally sound. Figure out which area you'd like to specialise in – whether it's research, or a particular artistic medium such as sculpture – and then pursue it. Most people start with a fine-art or art- history degree before doing a Masters, but I did an art- conservation foundation degree first instead. Unfortunately, it's hard to get work experience before you've trained, so you're in at the deep end.

What's the salary and career path like?

It has been suggested that the starting salary should be no lower than £17,500 a year. I started on £19,000 a year in the north of England, but in London you might earn around £23,000 a year. You start off as an assistant, and then can work up to being the head of a museum's conservation department or move into teaching. There are also jobs in the private sector, although the amount you can earn depends on the clients.

For more information on art conservation, visit www.icon.org.uk; and www.bapcr.org.uk