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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

Oliver Cossairt

Oliver Cossairt
oliver.cossairt@northwestern.edu
Associate Professor of Computer Science in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering

Marc Walton

Marc Walton
marc.walton@northwestern.edu
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

Aggelos Katsaggelos

Aggelos Katsaggelos
a-katsaggelos@northwestern.edu
Joseph Cummings Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering

Images

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

Landscape painting. Pedernal by Georgia O'Keeffe

Georgia O'Keeffe. Pedernal, 1941. Oil on canvas, 19 x 30 1/4 inches. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. [2006.5.172]

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Close up of painting
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5 centimeter macro detail. An up-close look at a detailed section of "Pedernal" shows micron-sized protrusions from metal soaps.

Close up of painting with color removed
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5 centimeter RTI specular enhancement image. A detailed section of "Pedernal" with the color removed allows researchers to identify metal soaps among the painting’s other surface shapes from brush strokes and canvas texture.

Close up of painting
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5 centimeter normal surface vector map. A detailed section of "Pedernal" through reflectance transformation imaging, a computational imaging method that captures the painting’s surface shape.

Art acne GIF
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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.

Scene-setting images

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.

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B-roll

Woman at microscope
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Raw video of researchers working with Georgia O'Keeffe paintings at the Georgia O'Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Man with camera
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In this voice over video, Oliver Cossairt explains the 3-D art imaging process.

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Interview clips

Oliver Cossairt
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Oliver Cossairt says the hand-held device used in the research is like the "tricorder" on Star Trek.

Aggelos Katsaggelos
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Aggelos Katsaggelos describes the difficult classifications of protrusions that can be carried out by the hand-held tool.

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