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Listening to Ancient Colors
Sep 2010
MONTREAL, Sept. 7, 2010 — A technique known as photoacoustic infrared spectroscopy can be used to identify the composition of pigments used in artwork that is decades or even centuries old, a team of McGill University chemists has discovered. Pigments give artist's materials color, and they emit sounds when light is shone on them.

"The chemical composition of pigments is important to know, because it enables museums and restorers to know how the paints will react to sunlight and temperature changes," said Ian Butler, lead researcher and professor at McGill's Department of Chemistry. Without a full understanding of the chemicals involved in artworks, preservation attempts sometimes can lead to more damage than would occur by just simply leaving the works untreated.

Exhibit of the type of color pigments used to decorate 17th century warships, on display at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Peter Isotalo)

Photoacoustic infrared spectroscopy is based on Alexander Graham Bell's 1880 discovery that showed solids could emit sounds when exposed to sunlight, infrared radiation or ultraviolet radiation. Advances in mathematics and computers have enabled chemists to apply the phenomenon to various materials, but Butler's team is the first to use it to analyze typical inorganic pigments that most artists use.

The researchers have classified 12 historically prominent pigments by the infrared spectra they exhibit - that is, the range of noises they produce - and they hope the technique will be used to establish a pigment database.

"Once such a database has been established, the technique may become routine in the arsenal of art forensic laboratories," Butler said. The next steps will be to identify partners interested in developing standard practices that would enable this technique to be used with artwork.

The research received funding from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada and was published in Spectrochimica Acta Part A: Molecular and Biomolecular Spectroscopy
For more information, visit:

Alexander Graham BellAmericasartartistsartworkBasic ScienceCanadachemicalsIan ButlerimaginginfraredMcGill Universityphotoacousticphotoacoustic infrared spectroscopypigmentspreservationResearch & TechnologySpectrochimica Acta Part Aspectroscopyultraviolet

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