Brushes with Greatness, and House Paint


One long-coveted secret of Pablo Picasso's genius may be out. It's house paint.

Or so posits new research fueling the theory that the Spanish-born artist was one of the first master painters to create his artwork with common house paint in lieu of artists’ paint.

That is the conclusion of the Art Institute of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory, which teamed up to help unravel the decades-long debate among art scholars.

Using a high-tech X-ray instrument, the team was able to determine that the chemical makeup of paint used by Picasso matched that of the first commercial house paint, Ripolin, according to Argonne’s report on the findings.

Results were published last month in the journal Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing.

New Paint, New Style

The switch to common house paint in the art world produced a new style marked by canvasses covered in glossy images with marbeling, muted edges, and occasional errant paint drips without brush marks, the researchers said.

“Fast-drying enamel house paint enabled this dramatic departure from the slow-drying, heavily blended oil paintings that dominated the art world up until Picasso’s time,” the team said.

Unraveling a Mystery

Credit for unlocking the longstanding mystery goes in part to development of the hard X-ray nanoprobe at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) X-ray facility and the Center for Nanoscale Materials. The nanoprobe is designed to advance the development of high-performance materials and sustainable energies by giving scientists a close-up view of the type and arrangement of chemical elements in material.

Pablo Picasso

The Art Institute of Chicago has been studying the paints used by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973).

Past research into the issue of Picasso’s paint proved inconclusive, because traditional tools did not allow conservators to look deeply enough into the layers of paint or with enough resolution to distinguish between store-bought enamels and techniques designed to mimic its appearance.

"Appearances can deceive, so this is where art can benefit from scientific research," said Francesca Casadio, senior conservator scientist at the Art Institute of Chicago and co-lead author on the result publication, "High-Resolution Fluorescence Mapping of Impurities in the Historical Zinc Oxide Pigments: Hard X-ray Nanoprobe Applications to the Paints of Pablo Picasso."

"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."

Chemical Signature Detected

Just as criminals leave a signature at a crime scene, each batch of paint has a chemical signature determined by its ingredients and impurities from the area and time period it was made, according to the researchers.

"These signatures can’t be imitated and lie in the nanoscale range," the team reported.

Paint Cans

Each batch of paint has a nanoscale chemical signature determined by its ingredients and impurities from the area and time period in which it was made.

However, until now, it was difficult to differentiate the chemical components of the paint pigments from the chemical components in the binders, fillers, other additives and contaminates that were mixed in with the pigments or layered on top of them.

But the nanoprobe distinguished that level of detail: elemental composition and nanoscale distribution of elements within individualized submicrometeric pigment particles, the team said.

The team of scientists were able to determine that Picasso used enamel paint to create in 1931 The Red Armchair, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. They were also able to determine the paint brand and from what manufacturing region the paint originated.

Argonne, the nation's first national laboratory, conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in a variety of scientific disciplines.


Tagged categories: Coating chemistry; Coatings Technology; Coatings technology; Design; Research; Zinc oxide

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