Scientists diagnose 'art acne' in Georgia O'Keeffe paintings
Even Georgia O’Keeffe noticed the pin-sized blisters bubbling on the surface of her paintings. For decades, conservationists and scholars assumed these tiny protrusions were grains of sand, kicked up from the New Mexico desert where O’Keeffe lived and worked. But as the protrusions began to grow, spread and eventually flake off, people shifted from curious to concerned.
A multidisciplinary team from Northwestern University and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico has now diagnosed the strange paint disease: The micron-sized protrusions are metal soaps, resulting from a chemical reaction between the metal ions and fatty acids commonly used as binder in paints.
Inspired by the research, the team developed a novel, hand-held tool that can easily and effortlessly map and monitor works of art. The tool enables researchers to carefully watch the protrusions in order to better understand what conditions make the protrusions grow, shrink or erupt.
Northwestern's Marc Walton discussed the research findings and technology at a Feb. 16 press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The briefing, “Art Conservation Leverages Advanced Scientific Knowhow."
Northwestern's Oliver Cossairt will present the research at a scientific session the next day. His talk, “Diagnosing a Paint Disease with Computer Science: The Case of Georgia O’Keeffe,” is part of the session “Medicine, Computer Science and Art: Learning Through Technology” (8 to 9:30 a.m. EST on Feb. 17, room 2, Marriott Wardman Park).
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Meet the researchers
Associate Professor of Computer Science in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering
Research professor of materials science and engineering in Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts
Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering
To receive high-res images of individual paintings, email Micaela Hester of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.
'Pedernal' - Scientific Images
The following is a selection of research images associated with Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pedernal."
Photo credit for all scientific images: Dale Kronkright / © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
An animated GIF of a magnified section of Georgia O'Keeffe's "Pedernal" that isolates micron-sized protrusions from metal soaps to quickly identify where the "art acne" exists.
The following images depict Northwestern researcher Oliver Cossairt studying the Georgia O'Keeffe painting "Ritz Tower" at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Raw video of researchers working with Georgia O'Keeffe paintings at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In this voice over video, Oliver Cossairt explains the 3-D art imaging process.
Marc Walton provides an overview of the research.
Oliver Cossairt says the hand-held device used in the research is like the "tricorder" on Star Trek.
Aggelos Katsaggelos describes the difficult classifications of protrusions that can be carried out by the hand-held tool.