Scientists have developed a technology that will revolutionize the restoration of historic works of art by allowing conservators to identify and remove aging varnish with absolute precision.
A team in the physics department at King’s College London has used the power of fluorescence to bring “unprecedented clarity” to the conservation process, said Prof Klaus Suhling.
A revolutionary camera will allow experts to distinguish between varnish and other components of an artwork, such as paints and binders.
“Conserving the paintings is important to protect our cultural heritage for future generations,” Suhling said.
“Most paintings made before the late 19th century were varnished several times, making them appear dull or yellow as the varnish wears off. To see the image again, it may be necessary to remove that varnish – but it can be a huge challenge to separate it from the underlying paint and other components within the paint.
The King’s College team has developed a 25,000-pixel photon sensitive camera that uses a technique called macroscopic fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM) to harness the natural fluorescence of centuries-old varnish.
Each pixel has a stopwatch that measures when light from a surface enters it. “By comparing the fluorescence of the varnish with the other components, we can chart where the varnish sits with a level of precision never before achieved,” Suhling said.
Often conservators shine UV lamps over a painting to determine what remains by eye. The method relies on the conservator’s skill and involves a certain amount of guesswork.
The King’s College team, led by Suhling and Dr Jakub Nedbal, worked with the Courtauld and the University of Edinburgh on the project.
Prof Aviva Burnstock, of the Courtauld, said the new technique “provided more detailed information about the paint and varnish during removal tests than any previous method, paving the way for a whole painting imaging during varnish removal”.
“If achieved, that would be a great development for painting conservators.”
Suhling said that the camera will be inexpensive to produce in the future because it will come from consumer technology like smartphone cameras. “It’s very customized 1687765140 but in the future I think it will cost less. “
Fluorescence is commonly used in medicine to study, track and identify cancer cells. It is also used in polymer banknotes as a security measure.
Kuhling said he is a regular visitor to art galleries. “I want to use my skills to advance conservation work,” he said.