UD chemist investigates reactions damage paintings

UD chemist investigates reactions that damage paintings

3:02 AM, 26th August 2011
UD chemist investigates reactions that damage paintings


NEWARK, US: In the days before artists could go to a store and buy commercial paints, they mixed their own, often combining pigments made of lead salts with such materials as egg whites and vegetable oils.

“They were seat-of-the-pants chemists,” said Cecil Dybowski, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware. “But they didn’t understand the chemistry itself and they didn’t foresee what would happen to those pigments in the future.”

What generally happened is that internal chemical reactions gradually occurred in the dried paints, causing them to change in various ways and eventually damaging their works of art.  

Supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Dybowski and colleagues at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will create models of centuries-old paints and use special spectroscopic techniques to analyze the reactions that occur within them. Researchers at the Metropolitan came up with the idea for the project and contacted Dybowski. Specifically, Dybowski and other UD scientists use nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometry for analyzing a variety of materials.

Last year, a team of researchers in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, including Dybowski, received a $2.2 million grant to acquire a highly specialized NMR spectrometer that will be used by scientists throughout the University and the region.

“I wouldn’t be able to attack this problem on my own and I don’t think the Met could either. The NSF likes collaborative projects like this, which looks at art as science and science as art,” said Dybowski.

The chemical makeup of paints and pigments has been studied extensively over the years in art conservation work, but this project seeks to duplicate the chemistry of the old paints and then analyze those chemical reactions with the most modern technology. NMR can’t yet easily study the surface of a painting, and the analysis requires a relatively large sample, which is why the researchers will be creating their own paints to use as models.

The three-year project will begin in September. The Metropolitan’s researchers are Silvia Centeno, a Physical Chemist who specializes in a type of analysis known as Raman spectroscopy and Nicholas Zumbulyadis, a retired NMR, Spectroscopist from the Eastman Kodak Research Laboratories.

“I never set out to study artworks,” said Dybowski. “I was interested in the fundamental spectroscopic properties of lead and I’ve been studying that for about 10 years. Then, out of the blue, I got the call from the Met. I think it shows the amazing diversity of chemistry and how knowledge that might seem theoretical suddenly becomes extremely pertinent to problems one might not have envisioned.”

© University of Delaware News




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