Is it an authentic painting or a forgery? An original paint layer or rather a later addition? And how can we prevent or delay degradation? The experts of the Painting Lab uncover the answers to these and other questions from the paint.
Paint, a wealth of information
Our lab mainly studies the composition of paint in paintings: the pigments, fillers, binders and varnish layers. But lacquers and plastics from our heritage are also examined here.
A paint layer is alive; it is not a static system. Even after hundreds of years, the composition can change due to the components reacting with each other or the environment. This can cause aesthetic and structural damage, such as colour changes. Our analyses provide important information to estimate, delay or prevent such damage. To this end, we work closely with the Painting Studio.
Dr Steven Saverwyns, head of the lab: “The results are also used in art historical research and to assist restorations. Changes in composition are revealed using chemical imaging, often in combination with other imaging techniques. We distinguish the original paint from later additions and thus help better understand the evolution of the artist’s use of materials.”
We work closely with the Scientific Imagery Unit on numerous projects, especially on questions of attribution and authenticity.
From Memling to Delvaux
Our primary expertise lies in paintings from the 15th century to the present day. Whenever possible, we examine these valuable works using non-invasive analysis techniques with radiation that does not harm the painting.
Louise Decq: “If sampling is unavoidable, we ensure the sample is microscopic: from a few grains for pigment identification, to a few microgrammes of a paint sample for binder analyses. For the study of the structure of the paint layers, a sample the size of a pinhead will suffice.”
Our clients include museums, churchwardens, restorers, art historians and private collectors.
State-of-the-art analysis techniques
Steven Saverwyns: “Thanks to constant innovation in techniques and analysis methods, we can avoid taking samples or further limit them to microscopic quantities. We recently expanded our arsenal of analytical techniques with a high-quality mobile micro-Raman spectrometer that accurately identifies pigments directly on the painting. Combined with macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF), a chemical imaging technique that has revolutionised painting research, we can measure a large number of pigments non-invasively.”
Some of the techniques we use:
- Attenuated total reflection Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (ATR-FTIR)
- Micro-Raman spectroscopy (either with a fixed set-up coupled to an optical microscope or with a high-resolution mobile set-up)
- Gas chromatography coupled to a quadrupole mass spectrometer, possibly in conjunction with a pyrolysis unit (Py-GC/MS)
- Macro X-ray fluorescence (MA-XRF)
- Scanning electron microscopy coupled to energy dispersive X-ray detection (SEM-EDX)
- 3D digital microscopy.
We can also offer the following analyses thanks to our collaboration with Belgian universities:
- Macro X-ray powder diffraction (MA-XRPD), with the AXES research group (University of Antwerp)
- Mobile macro Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (MA-rFTIR), with the AXES research group (University of Antwerp)
- Liquid chromatographic separation and tandem mass spectrometric detection (LC-MS/MS), with the Laboratory of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology (Ghent University).
Authenticity confirmed by SOP
In recent years we have built up a strong reputation in the research into synthetic organic pigments (SOPs). These often enable us to distinguish authentic paintings from 20th-century forgeries.
Wim Fremout: “SOPs first appeared in the late 19th century. We know the date of their discovery from patents and other documentation. If we find a synthetic organic pigment in a painting, we know its earliest possible date of creation. We have compiled extensive reference databases to accurately identify these significant pigments.”
Broadly applicable expertise
Sharing knowledge is part of our mission. The experts in the lab participate in international conferences, publish their research results and supervise PhD students and (inter)national trainees.
Sometimes, we also go beyond the boundaries of our specific field of expertise by applying our expertise to other objects, such as European and Asian lacquerware, pictorial layers on modern sculptures or even the identification of plastics in heritage items.
Would you like to request an investigation? Contact us for an initial consultation or free quote.
We will be pleased to guide you in the choice of the most suitable analysis technique or study.
Request a free quote by e-mail or telephone.
Consult our price list
For complex studies, we come on site in advance to determine the price.