NCMA acquires lasers for art conservation work

Lasers are coming to the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), courtesy of Duke University’s Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging (CMBI). They are to be used to enhance understanding of art conservation and gain a deeper appreciation of the types of materials used by artists.
Two lasers are being provided, which are described as a “new non-destructive pump-probe” and an “Erbium:YAG (Er:YAG) laser”. The former, which was originally designed by Dr Warren S. Warren, CMBI director at Duke, is traditionally used in melanoma diagnoses.
He realised that this technique could have a wider remit when he was at National Gallery exhibition in London enjoying a show on art forgeries. What he found was that imagining technologies seemed to be stuck in the past.
“Dr Warren assumed that, just as with skin lesions, yellowed varnish and paint layers could be imaged by his laser to distinguish original paint from restoration, helping us understand the intended beauty of centuries-old paintings,” explained William Brown, chief conservator at the NCMA.
The museum put forward Puccio Capanna’s fourteenth century Crucifixion for testing. Staff at NCMA have long been curious about the Italian’s painting, especially what kind of pigments he used and the layering techniques he adopted to create the majestic masterpiece.
Some of the immediate findings include the revelation that a thick layer of lapis lazuli was used over the section of Madonna’s mantle, which in the fourteenth century was an expensive material, more so than gold. Most artists would use azurite instead.
“Through these techniques, you’re also understanding the technology that went into the creation of these paintings,” Mr Brown told the Huffington Post last month.
“And you can chart the whole history of the world through technology and technology innovations. It affects the economy, it affects everything.”
What is particularly notable about this early-stage technique is its distinct lack of ‘interaction’ with a work of art under examination, thereby preserving its overall integrity much more than customarily happens.
For example, when it analyses a work, it does not require samples to be taken – other methods of paint analysis often involve the removal of tiny fragments of paint – and instead delivers 3D “chemically specific” images.
“Given that each work is irreplaceable, destroying even a very small part of the painting is a difficult choice for a conservator, who, like a doctor, is ethically obligated to do no harm,” Mr Brown pointed out.
Other benefits of this system include a more precise understanding of the true origin of a work of art, as it can accurately gauge where materials have come from, while also bolstering security through its ability to better distinguish between newer, more synthetic paints, from older, more natural ones (especially in the case of old master paintings).
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