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Listening to Ancient Colours

New technique may help restorers identify decades-old pigments

A team of McGill chemists have discovered that a technique known as photoacoustic infrared spectroscopy could be used to identify the composition of pigments used in art work that is decades or even centuries old. Pigments give artist’s materials colour, and they emit sounds when light is shone on them.

“The chemical composition of pigments is important to know, because it enables museums and restorers to know how the paints will react to sunlight and temperature changes,” explained Dr. Ian Butler, lead researcher and professor at McGill’s Department of Chemistry. Without a full understanding of the chemicals involved in artworks, preservation attempts can sometimes lead to more damage than would occur by just simply leaving the works untreated.

Photoacoustic infrared spectroscopy is based on Alexander Graham Bell’s 1880 discovery that showed solids could emit sounds when exposed to sunlight, infrared radiation or ultraviolet radiation. Advances in mathematics and computers have enabled chemists to apply the phenomenon to various materials, but the Butler’s team is the first to use it to analyze typical inorganic pigments that most artists use.

The researchers have classified 12 historically prominent pigments by the infrared spectra they exhibit – i.e., the range of noises they produce – and they hope the technique will be used to establish a pigment database. “Once such a database has been established, the technique may become routine in the arsenal of art forensic laboratories,” Butler said. The next steps will be to identify partners interested in developing standard practices that would enable this technique to be used with artwork.

The research received funding from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada and was published in the journal Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy.

For more information:

William Raillant-Clark
Media Relations
McGill University
Montréal, le 2 septembre 2010
À l’écoute des couleurs d’autrefois
Une nouvelle technique pourrait aider les restaurateurs
à identifier des pigments datant de nombreuses décennies
Une équipe de chimistes de l’Université McGill a découvert qu’une technique connue sous le nom de spectroscopie photoacoustique infrarouge pouvait servir à déterminer la composition de pigments utilisés il y a des dizaines voire des centaines d’années dans la conception d’œuvres d’art. De fait, les pigments, qui donnent de la couleur aux toiles d’un artiste, émettent des sons lorsqu’ils sont illuminés.

« Connaître la composition chimique des pigments permet aux conservateurs et aux restaurateurs de musées de prévoir la réaction d’une peinture à la lumière du soleil et aux changements de température », explique Ian Butler, chercheur principal et professeur au Département de chimie de l’Université McGill. Lorsqu’on ignore la composition chimique des peintures utilisées dans une toile, les tentatives pour préserver celle-ci peuvent parfois causer plus de dommages qu’il n’en surviendrait avec le temps si aucune intervention n’était pratiquée.

La spectroscopie photoacoustique infrarouge tire son origine d’une découverte faite par Alexandre Graham Bell au cours des années 1880. Selon Bell, les solides émettent des sons lorsqu’ils sont exposés à la lumière du soleil ainsi qu’aux rayons infrarouges et ultraviolets. Au fil du temps, les progrès réalisés en mathématique et en informatique ont permis aux chimistes d’appliquer le principe à divers matériaux, mais l’équipe de monsieur Butler l’a exploité pour la première fois dans le but d’analyser les pigments inorganiques généralement utilisés par la plupart des artistes.

Les chercheurs ont réussi à répertorier le spectre infrarouge, c’est-à-dire le son produit, de 12 pigments auxquels les artistes avaient autrefois largement recours. Ils espèrent que cette technique servira à mettre sur pied une base de pigments. « Une fois cette base établie, la technique pourrait devenir une arme standard de l’arsenal à la disposition des laboratoires judiciaires – section des crimes visant les œuvres d’art », ajoute le professeur Butler. La prochaine étape consistera à recruter des partenaires désireux de participer à la mise au point de processus normalisés permettant d’utiliser couramment la technique sur les œuvres d’art.

Le projet de recherche a été financé par le Conseil de recherches et de sciences en génie du Canada. Le compte rendu des travaux a été publié dans la revue scientifique Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy.

Cliquer ici pour en savoir plus.

William Raillant-Clark
Relations avec les médias
Université McGill
514 398 2189

William Raillant-Clark | Newswise Science News
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