Science Uses X-Rays To Unlock Mystery Of Picasso Paint
February 7, 2013

Science Uses X-Rays To Unlock Mystery Of Picasso Paint

Michael Harper for — Your Universe Online

The best way to win any decades-long debate is science, science, and more science. If, for example, you´re able to hire a team of technicians to operate a powerful X-Ray to prove your point, there´s almost no way you´ll lose.

Such is the case with a long-standing debate over which type of paint Picasso used in his works. Art scholars have been arguing for many years over the theory that the cubist painter used commercial-grade paint in his compositions instead of choosing the traditional and more expensive professional-grade material.

After running these paintings underneath an X-ray, researchers have now proved that Picasso had, in fact, used common house paint to create some of his works. The researchers involved were even able to tell which manufacturing plant had produced the paint.

The Art Institute of Chicago (currently hosting Picasso's 1931 painting “Red Armchair” ) and the Argonne National Laboratory teamed up to settle this debate once and for all, using an X-Ray capable of determining the makeup of materials at the nano-level.

The results of this study will be published in the journal Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing.

This high-energy X-ray, called the hard X-ray nanoprobe, has only recently been developed at the US Department of Energy´s (DOE) Advanced Photon Source (APS) facility and the Center for Nanoscale Materials (CNM), both of which are housed at Argonne. This X-ray is capable of peering deep into a material source to uncover the chemical composition therein.

To make this discovery, the researchers compared samples of decades-old house paint called Ripolin with samples from some of Picasso´s work. After running these samples under the high energy X-ray, the researchers found some strong chemical similarities between the two. While they were investigating, the researchers also learned a thing or two about the spacing of impurities at the nano-level in zinc oxide. These discoveries could help future scientists improve the material used in LCD displays, LEDs and even energy-saving windows.

"Everything that we learn about how materials are structured and how chemicals react at the nanolevel can help us in our quest to design a better and more sustainable future," said Volker Rose, an Argonne physicist.

Art conservationists and historians alike have tried in the past to discover which kind of paint Mr. Picasso used in some of his pieces. During the years in which he was working, artists began to choose other kinds of paint to create their works, resulting in a style defined by marbling, muted edges and paint drips, but without brush strokes. Until now, it was unclear if Picasso had been the first to introduce this new approach to painting or if it had been one of his contemporaries.

Previously, researchers used traditional microscopes and electron microscopes to unlock the chemical composition of the paint, but were unable to do so.

"Appearances can deceive, so this is where art can benefit from scientific research," explained Francesca Casadio, co-author of the research and senior conservator scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago, speaking in a statement. "We needed to reverse-engineer the paint so that we could figure out if there was a fingerprint that we could then go look for in the pictures around the world that are suspected to be painted with Ripolin, the first commercial brand of house paint."