That Picasso used house paint (french enamel paint ripolin in particulars) in his classic art work has always been widely accepted but never proven until now. Scientist using X-ray have examined Picasso’s paintings …and he used enamel house paint; Scandalous to some
For decades, art scholars have debated about the type of paint Picasso used on his famous paintings. The Argonne National Laboratory and The Art Institute of Chicago have joined together to solve this debate once and for all.
Before Picasso’s time, artists used a type of paint traditionally used solely by artists. These paints were slow to dry and led to very blended oil painting that is commonly seen in pieces from that time. Picasso was one of the first artists to use house paint and not artists paint, according to Applied Physics A: Materials Science and Processing. This type of paint meant artists could paint with glossy colors without brush marks or paint drips, which gave their pieces a cleaner edge. Switching to a new paint meant artists could create paintings in a new style that quickly grew popular.
In order to prove this theory, experts developed and used a new instrument called a hard X-ray nanoprobe. The United States Department of Energy and the Center for Nanoscale Materials, which are both located at Argonne, developed this new technology. This technology was developed to help scientists view the chemical makeup of a compound in hopes of creating sustainable energy. But some scholars soon found a new use for this technology.
A physicist at Argonne name Volker Rose used the probe to study zinc oxide, which is found in all white paint. Different brands and types of paint use different amounts of this substance. By studying how much was in the paint Picasso used, scientists could learn more about the particular paint Picasso used.
Scientists purchased known samples of Picasso’s work from eBay. They studied these samples to learn the type of paint he used on his work, and they matched a popular house paint from the time. Ripolin was the first commercial house paint, and they proved that Picasso used this paint in his paintings.
Their research didn’t just help the art world. They also studied the correlation between spacing of impurities in zinc oxide. This gave them a better understanding on how this substance can be used to improve many existing products like LED lights, energy efficient windows, televisions, computer monitors and radiation detection.
Before this new technology, historians used electron and optical microscopes to try to determine if Picasso was the used traditional artist paint or house paint or if another artist would be credited with this advancement in the art world. No one could successfully determine which type of paint was used because electron and optical microscopes were not sensitive enough to distinguish between the types of paint.
Scientists suspected that Ripolin, the first brand of house paint available for commercial use, was used by artists and not more expensive artists paints that were available for such uses. But until now, they had no way to prove this theory. They needed to reverse engineer the paint in order to determine its chemical makeup.
Every batch of paint has a signature based on its chemical compound. By examining the chemical compound, scientists could see what chemicals are found in the paint and the impurities. These both gives important clues about the time period and the area the paint was from. Looking at paint on the nanoscale gave scientists the knowledge they needed about these chemicals and impurities.
Paint contains many chemical compounds including pigment, fillers, binders, additives and contaminants. These other compounds can be mixed with the pigment or on top of the pigment. Currently, the only instrument to differentiate between these substances is the nanoprobe. It can successfully tell the difference based on the distribution of substances and the composition of elements within a larger pigment particle.
By using the nanoprobe, scientists were able to learn about the chemical composition of small pieces of paint Picasso used. They are able to prove with almost certainty that Picasso did, in fact, use house paint on his masterpieces.
Because the nanoprobe has micro-focusing abilities and the high spatial resolution, it could tell the difference in size of the particles of paint. When artists crush paint themselves, the paint particle is much larger than when a machine crushes the paint. A smaller sized particle means the paint was a commercially available house paint. The nanoprobe also lets scientists take a closer look at paint molecules. Other tools only let scientists see a one micrometer resolution, but the nanoprobe gave scientists a 30 nanometer view. For scale, a piece of paper is 100,000 nanometers in thickness.
By examining the paint on The Red Armchair, a Picasso painting from 1931 displayed the Art Institute of Chicago, they were able to prove that it was painted with enamel paint. Not only could they determine the type of paint, but they also determined what brand of paint was used and the region where it was made.
After examining the paint, they found that the Ripolin brand contained very little contaminants in its zinc oxide pigment. Traditional artists paint had more fillers and contaminants mixed with the zinc oxide.
Studying the composition of paints used to create art over the centuries gives us more information than just knowing what type of paint a particular artist used. It helps historians learn about trade movements around the world and helps us date art work. We can even more about the particular artist based on his paint choices.