Art historians have long argued over what type of paint
Pablo Picasso used to create his famous masterpieces.
Dr. Volker Rose, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory
in Illinois, has the answer: common house paint.
Dr. Rose is part of a team of scientists and art experts who
used synchrotron-based, X-ray microscopy to solve the long-running debate, as
he explained to a crowd of 70 people at Ohio University on Aug. 29 during his
talk “Shining Light on Nanoscale Materials: From Picasso to the Ultimate
Resolution in X-ray Microscopy.”
“This problem has been heavily discussed before. Picasso was always mixing paints, so it could
be misleading for paint experts,” he said.
Dr. Rose was able to solve this problem by using a hard
X-ray nanoprobe to study impurities in single pigments of paint. He and his
collaborators from the Art Institute of Chicago then compared those results to
original samples of white paint used by Picasso.
The main component of this white paint is zinc oxide, which
also happens to be a material physicists study often, as it is used in
light-emitting diodes and liquid-crystal displays in computers and TVs.
“Zinc oxide is heavily studied in spintronics. Scientists know a lot about zinc oxide, but
what they don’t realize is that this is the same thing Picasso was using as
white paint,” he said.
The beauty of using X-ray microscopy to perform this type of
analysis is that the process does not compromise the artifact.
“You do not destroy the samples. What is special is that we put this
technology (synchrotron-based, X-ray microscopy) in an area where nothing has
been done before at the nanoscale level,” he said.
The paint samples taken were as small as a grain of
salt. The X-ray microscope the
researchers used allowed them to study the chemical makeup of the paint at a
spatial resolution of 30 nanometers, quite miniscule considering that a human
hair is approximately 50,000 nanometers thick, or the head of a pin is around 1
million nanometers across.
Dr. Rose has also used this technique to study the corrosive
patterns of daguerreotypes, early photographs created on silver-plated copper
For future work, Dr. Rose’s team has developed a unique
method to study nanoscale materials by combining scanning probe microscopy with
synchrotron X-rays. This technique
allows an understanding of structure and provides detailed information about
chemical, electronic, and magnetic state.
Dr. Rose thinks that his research is a perfect example of how scientists and artists can work together. He saw this project as an opportunity for a new collaborative area of research between scientists and art historians: to use the nanoprobe to study cultural heritage objects under microscopic conditions at the nanoscale level.
Dr. Rose, who is an Early Career Awardee of the U.S. Department of Energy, graduated with a doctorate in physics from RWTH Aachen University in Germany in 2005. He works as a physicist in a joint appointment between the Advanced Photon Source and the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne National Laboratory.
Thu, September 12, 2013
by Angie Faller filed under