Weeping Paintings
Oct15

Weeping Paintings

You don’t really expect a seemingly dry painting to suddenly start oozing streaks of wet paint, seven years after its completion. So when Otto Piene’s Harvest, which was finished in 1993, began to weep white paint in 2000, owners, conservators and the artist were all rather surprised. Although Harvest is Piene’s only work to start weeping, the strange liquefying process has happened to dozens of other artworks from contemporary artists as varied as Jonathan Meese and Frank von Hemert, explains Jenny Schulz, a conservator in Cologne, Germany, who’s made it her business to figure out why. “It’s quite a common thing,” she says. Taking a closer look at several of these paintings, Schulz figured out something that all the weeping paintings had in common: The tears occurred in places on the canvas where the artist has laid down a thick layer of oil paint. Although the thickly-laid paint seems to dry, it turns out to be unstable and capable of liquefying. But why? It’s not as if applying thick layers of oil paint is a new thing among artists… Yet the weeping painting issue is relatively new, having emerged in the last two decades or so. What’s changed, Schulz says, is formulation of oil paints. Until recently oil paint was made using linseed oil. But the problem with linseed, she says, is that it has a tendency to yellow over time. So paint formulators began exchanging linseed oil for sunflower oil, because sunflower oil doesn’t yellow. The problem is that sunflower oil doesn’t dry as well. That’s because the oil contains fewer reactive double bonds, which are required to form a permanently dried paint complex, Schulz says. Thick layers of the sunflower oil paint may seem to dry, but they are unstable. Subjected to changes in temperature and humidity or even the jostling that occurs during transport, these layers can collapse, releasing component parts as a gooey tear running as fast as 2 centimeters per month. Other paint components can help or hinder the instability, Schulz says. For example, formulators have been increasingly replacing lead-based pigments for titanium- or zinc-based ones in white paint. Unfortunately, lead seems to help paintings stay stable, while replacements are not as effective. Additional ingredients in oil paints such as bees wax  (used to stabilize pigments) and aluminum stearate (used to improve viscosity) may also play a role in the ability of sunflower-oil paint to dry completely, Schulz adds. She’s currently developing recommendations for formulators and artists on ways to avoid the weeping painting problem—and she’s also working on strategies for conservators tasked with stopping the flow. As an aside, paintings aren’t the only cultural artifact to shed tears: Plastic...

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Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science
Sep11

Dear eBay, I Love You. Sincerely, Conservation Science

Dear eBay, I love you. Yours Sincerely, Conservation Science I’ve been conducting a rather unconventional poll. It consists of a single question posed to unsuspecting conservation scientists, typically during conference coffee breaks or at the hotel bar thereafter: “Um. So have you ever bought anything on eBay… I mean, for your scientific work?” What’s amazing is that researchers working with cultural heritage objects as diverse as Picasso paintings, plastic sculpture & toys, and digital art have all answered “yes.” Plastics: So that awesome photo of the Barbies in the sample holder? Several of the PVC dolls were purchased by Matija Strlic on eBay for the Heritage Smells! project. He’s part of a team of researchers trying to find a way to diagnose the health of plastic and paper artifacts in museums and archives by sniffing the gases that percolate off the objects. When a plastic (or paper) artifact begins to degrade it produces breakdown gases. But before Strlic can build a hand-held electronic nose that museum staff can then use to assess the health of their collections, his team needs to develop the analytical tool on old, non-valuable plastic objects. And that’s how he started buying Barbies on eBay. Picasso and friends: Between 1900-1950 many contemporary artists (Picasso, Miró, Kandinsky) began experimenting with using the newly invented industrial wall paint called Ripolin for their artwork instead of hoity-toity artist paint. According to Francesca Casadio, this was for a couple of reasons: First: It dried faster than the professional artist paint—a useful feature for procrastinating painters working on deadline. Second: Using industrial paint was a snub to the stodgy art world who wouldn’t dream of using anything but traditional oil paints. Third: Some artists liked the glossy finish of industrial paint. In trying to find a way to identify a painting produced with industrial paint, Casadio needed examples of Ripolin paint from the early 20th century to practice on. And so she turned to eBay… Digital art: Since the advent of computers and other forms of electrical recording technology (such as audio cassettes or video), artists have been using this media to produce artworks. But how do you watch art stored on an old floppy disk, or on a Commodore 64’s hard-drive, or on a now obsolete form of Bulgarian video? You need the hard-ware and you need cables to connect that hard-ware to a compatible screen. Leo Konstantelos told me it’s the esoteric cables that are sometimes the hardest to find. But he’s been successful on—you guessed...

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Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF
Jul11

Come To Culture Lab: Science On Art And Artifacts, A Conference Session This Saturday In Dublin At ESOF

I’m looking forward to moderating a session on art and artifact science at the Euroscience Open Forum  (ESOF) conference this Saturday morning from 10:45 am – 12:15 pm in the Liffey B room. If you’re in Dublin at ESOF, do stop by! Here’s what you’ll be in for… (the shortened version of my pitch to ESOF): When you mention art or cultural heritage science, most people think about authentication of a priceless masterpiece or identification of a pigment on a Rembrandt or a da Vinci. But cultural heritage scientists are doing this and much much more: They’re helping to conserve and restore everything from spacesuits to plastic sculptures. They’re developing tools to study artworks and artifacts without actually touching them, so that you can tell if Picasso produced a particular masterpiece with hoity toity expensive artist paint or industrial wall paint. They’re getting into the minds of ancient cultures by recreating their recipes for everything from hair dye to incense. And they’re dealing with what some call the digital art crisis: how do you preserve or conserve art that employs obsolete hardware or software, or art that is stored online in fleeting formats or impermanent platforms. Here’s who’s speaking at the Culture Lab session: Matija Strlič is a senior lecturer at the University College London’s Centre for Sustainable Heritage. He’s involved in all sorts of fascinating projects, from the AHRC/EPSRC-funded Heritage Smells!, which is about detecting the chemical makeup of gases emanating off artifacts to figure out degradation taking place inside, to the EU Joint Programming Initiative called ‘Cultural Heritage and Global Change.’ He’s developing technology to visualize damage in art and artifacts before it is visible to the naked eye. Costanza Miliani is a staff researcher at Italy’s CNR Institute for Molecular Science and Technologies. She’s also responsible  for MOLAB Transnational Access, an EU-funded, roving crew of conservation scientists that travel around Europe providing scientific support to museums and galleries around the continent. In the last couple of years, MOLAB has worked on everything from frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica, to Van Gogh’s sunflowers in Amsterdam and rare Aztec documents in Liverpool. In her own research, Miliani develops new non-invasive analytical technologies to study dyes, pigments, binders and their breakdown products. Philippe Walter has been a long-time scientist at the Centre for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France, a research facility located underneath the Louvre in Paris. He’s now taken an academic post at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie. Walter has been involved in a potpourri of interesting projects: From researching the Mona Lisa’s complexion using non-invasive, portable technology, to recreating ancient recipes for ancient Egyptian and Grecian cosmetics. Leo...

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Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It
Apr05

Stinky, Degrading Film And How To Stop It

Like humans, fungi have a taste for old movies. The problem is that they like to eat the film rather than watch it. Adding insult to injury, fungi produce copious amounts of stinky odors from their consumption of classic flicks. In fact, this fungi flatulence can cause headaches, nausea and irritated eyes in humans. (In particular, one airborne fungal molecule called 1-octen-3-ol.) For this reason film archive staff fear any sort of mold on film reels: It means their precious collections are being destroyed by fungi. Furthermore the fungal digestion produces smells that can make conservators sick. That’s why the UK’s North West Film Archive approached researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) to ask if there was any way to build a machine to detect the problematic odors. Last week, MMU’s Craig Banks and his collaborator Gavin Bingley reported a handy new mold flatulence detection device. With such a machine, conservators can test film reels donated from attics and basements. Sometimes these donations are so thick with dust it is hard to distinguish from mold—unless conservators take a sample and try growing it in a lab, Banks says. (Which then means the conservators may be exposed to the stinky molecules they’d much rather avoid.) Another benefit of the device: If invasive fungi manage to sneak into storage areas, the detector can forewarn conservators about the moldy intruders before the growth gets out of hand—or is visible to the naked eye. It’s worth pointing out that even if mold is kept at bay, old degrading film produces its own special brand of harmful flatulence. The first kinds of film were made from cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate. In addition to being flammable, these kinds of plastic degrade in the presence of light, heat and air to produce nitric acid and acetic acid. Both of these molecules can become airborne, where they float around and catalyze degradation in nearby, otherwise unsuspecting film. It’s what conservators call the “vinegar syndrome” – primarily because acetic acid is vinegar and degrading film smells like a salad freshly tossed in vinaigrette. Conservators try to delay film breakdown in two ways. First, by keeping film archive temperatures low, which slows down degradation reactions. Second, by keeping archives well aerated and/or by capturing acetic and nitric acid. Now it seems, conservators will have a third way to help keep old film by being destroyed. Here’s what amuses me: Film is a form of art that appeals to our eyes (and sometimes) ears, but it is our noses that are petitioned when film is under...

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Finish Fetish Chemistry
Oct26

Finish Fetish Chemistry

Consider this cultural cocktail: the 1960s and 70s surfing scene in Los Angeles, that era’s emerging aeronautical and chemical industries, plus a splash of flavor from Hollywood and the Beatniks. The result is a group of artists called the Finish Fetish who produced minimalist sculptures often made from materials newly available in those decades, such as polyester. Finish Fetish is “extra spit and polish in pop and minimal art plus space age materials.” This description (from Peter Plagens via artdesigncafe) explains the obsession with “finish”…which should not be confused with the Northern European Finnish. One of the Finish Fetish is an artist called De Wain Valentine. Commercial resin available at the time “wouldn’t allow him to do what he wanted to do–which was to pour really big objects,” says Tom Learner, head of Modern and Contemporary Art Research at the Getty Conservation Institute. Valentine wanted to create his extremely large sculptures in a single pour of polyester resin because creating the artwork in two steps interfered with the seamless look he was after. To get over these technical difficulties, Valentine got—well—technical. He started experimenting with ratios of resin ingredients, Learner says, trying to find the perfect balance between catalyst and resin. “It was all about slowing down the curing time to allow the piece to be a larger volume,” Learner says. Valentine found that “the temperature of the room was really key. The pigment levels were really key. He kept a notebook about proportions and when [a sculpture] failed and cracked he wrote it down. Eventually he came up with a formula that worked.” Valentine took this formula to a polymer salesman he knew, and thus was born a commercially sold resin called Valentine MasKast, Lerner says. Valentine was then able to produce gigantic pieces such as the Gray Column, which is 12 feet wide and 8 feet high. The Getty folks recently produced a documentary that “illustrates the extraordinary measures Valentine undertook to develop a material that would enable him to cast colossal pieces, and the efforts needed to achieve their extremely delicate and pristine surfaces,” notes their website. If you’re near LA on November 2nd, there will be a free screening of the documentary as well as a discussion afterwards with Valentine. For everyone else: You can check out the book which includes the documentary on DVD. Incidentally, to get a sense of the awesomeness of Finish Fetish artwork, check out this fantastic slideshow on the NewYorker...

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When Acrylic Paints Get A Spa Day
Oct17

When Acrylic Paints Get A Spa Day

When acrylic paint was introduced in the late 1940s it was a boon for artists with a penchant for instant gratification: Acrylics dry within hours, compared to the weeks and sometimes months it takes for oil paint to completely harden. But few things in life are perfect, and acrylic paint is no exception. In order to keep pigments stable in the acrylic polymer base, paint makers had to include additives called surfactants. Unfortunately, after a few years or decades, the surfactants get itchy feet and rise out of the paint to the surface of the artwork. Once there, these surfactants can leave a white film on priceless paintings and they can also be sticky, attracting dirt and grime to the artwork. In this week’s C&EN, my colleague Celia Arnaud digs deep in to acrylic paint chemistry and talks with conservation scientists about what they do to remedy the problem of wandering surfactant. Unfortunately, many existing solvents that might be used to clean off the surface of acrylic artworks tend to make the paint swell… This makes museum staff nervous because it’s not clear what long term consequence come from this swelling. Another problem is that solvents that don’t cause acrylic paints to swell aren’t typically good cleaners. That’s why researchers at the Tate Galleries in London, the Getty Conservation Institute in LA and the DOW chemical company have teamed up to try and find a solvent that cleans but does not swell acrylic paint. At the same time researchers at the University of Delaware are working with Golden Artist Colors, a paint company, to work out good cleaning conditions for acrylic paintings. If these researchers hit paydirt, acrylic paintings around the world will finally get that facial treatment they’ve all been...

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