Conservators rely heavily on their knowledge of the periodic table and the visual arts when deciphering a work of art. By slicing a small cross-section from a painting and placing it under a microscope, conservators can gain a better understanding of the colorful pigments’ chemical makeup. In turn, this elemental information can provide incredible insight into the culture in which the painting was originally created. By literally digging deeper into a work of art, conservators can accurately date an artwork, see how pigments have chemically reacted to environmental changes over time, as well as discover any modern additions by detecting the use of synthetic paints.
Traditionally, conservators would cut a small cross-section of a painting, however, thanks to advances in science there is now a non-evasive means of studying the chemical makeup of a work of art. Physicists and chemists at Duke University’s Center for the Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging collaborated with the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Chief Conservator to explore the pigments of an early Italian Renaissance painting in the museum’s collection. By using laser technology they were able to make 3D cross-section images, allowing the conservator to study the chemical make-up of the pigments without causing any physical harm to the original painting. Formally called nonlinear pump-probe microscopy this type of laser technology was originally developed to create 3D imaging of the pigments found in human skin as a means to study skin cancer. Now this type of laser technology is also being applied to the study of paint pigments in art. Discover more about this fusion of science, technology, and visual art in the article Exploring Beneath a Painting’s Surface from the online periodical, American Scientist.