The Science of Art Restoration

It would be nice if two, three hundred years or more after a painting is created it is enjoyed by its viewers as pristine as the day it was created, and it can be. Not often the sort of thing we think about when viewing 18th century art in our favorite museum or while visiting abroad, but art, like everything else, ages – and its age can show. Introducing the art and science of art restoration. It truly is both, and it is a complicated and delicate process, that is still evolving to this day.

Art restoration is nothing new, the science behind it however has grown in leaps and bounds and is a far cry from washing paintings with water and ash in days of yore, to even the harsh solvents used 20 years ago. The destructive techniques used in the past are no longer considered an acceptable means of treating art, and the new sciences grant it the respect and tender loving care it deserves with less invasive and more efficient methods. It is moving restoration and conservation closer together all for the good of the art.

In far too recent history it was the norm to break off a tiny piece of the paint to determine what was used in order to be able to duplicate it as much as possible with modern methods. No longer is such an invasive method required, and with much more accurate results. X-rays and scans give a much more accurate picture of the elements used in the pigment and varnishes with detailed results of their condition. Raman spectroscopy can determine the composition of varnish, thus having the potential to ensure restorations are reversible. The varnish can be repaired without alterations to the original artwork allowing for stylistic fluctuations.

Laser cleaning, emitting only light of a single wavelength is now being fine-tuned and could feasibly be used in instances where more traditional approaches such as heat treatments, enzyme or solvents are challenged to restore a work without damaging it. No simple task, adjusting the laser to heat dirt and grime on the surface on the painting, short pulses to heat it, and the hold to the paint is released and the dirt just falls away. So far still an expensive alternative, and still being fine tuned, the introduction of the laser induced breakdown spectroscopy can guide and direct the controls by recognizing just what is being removed, layer by layer, and alert to when varnish is being affected automatically stop before any damage is done to the artwork itself. The process is called ablation and may one day become the standard treatment.

Biology has not been sitting idly by on the sidelines either, cleaning solvents can do irreparable damage to delicate aged paint, and alternative methods are constantly being sought. In Italy engineers found a resourceful solution by way of a bacterium named Pseudomonas stutzeri. Within 12 hours of introducing the strain to a fresco the hungry little things managed to consume 80% of the pollutants with absolutely no damage to the pigment. In France cracked limestone is repaired by using Bacillus cereus which produces calcium carbonate saving sculptures and they are currently working on finding similar solutions for other stone types. Art and science working together to bring the past into the future.

Science in the restoration of the Mona Lisa

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