Using X-rays and blacklight, the hidden layers of art are revealed

Any University of Florida student who’s heard about the graffiti wall on 34th street knows that what was painted one day can very well be gone the next.

But less commonly known is that X-rays can be used to expose covered paintings, so what might appear to have been lost forever can once again be revealed.

The murals on 34th street aren’t always rich with artistic technique, but when it comes to famous paintings like those done by Picasso, exposing the original paint layers gives insight into what the painter originally painted, whether the work is an original or a copy, and details that were worn away with time and poor methods of resoration.

Piece of the graffiti wall on 34th Street in Gainesville, Fla., on May 7, 2011. Photo by Christopher Sessums.

Weirdly, I really have thought a lot about those layers of paint on 34th street. In a way, it’s always felt so disrespectful to me to cover someone else’s work.

But when I read about X-rays in an article about the grant awarded to the Guggenheim in New York from the Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project so that Picasso’s “Woman Ironing” and the hidden “ghost figure” could be further studied, a whole new area of the art world was opened up to me.

Art isn’t disrespected and forced to disappear when it’s painted over. The piece that’s been painted over becomes part of the composition; it’s a layer that adds depth and meaning to the surface piece as well as the overall work.

Picasso’s piece “Woman Ironing” has has been X-rayed, that’s probably how it’s become known that there was another subject on the canvas before the woman who is now depicted, but the Guggenheim plans to use the grant it’s received to do research beyond that. According to The New York Times article, Carol Stringari, the Guggenheim’s chief conservator and deputy director, said the museum hasn’t had the resources to analyze the painting properly until now.

The article doesn’t specifically say what new resources will be used to analyze the painting, but I’ve read about a very scientific-sounding process called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry that could probably be an option.

The actual machine, called a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer, can be used to “study the organic chemistry of old master paintings to understand how paintings were made and how they have changed over time.” The article said that scientists were able to use the GC-MS to “study the characterization and composition of paint binding media, additions to paint media such as resins, and the composition of old varnishes.”

It feels like using these research advancements to learn about art is like turning the painting into a book. It seems to become 3-D, with depth and a story, rather than a 2-D painting with just one layer.

Similar to the secret paintings that lie beneath the layers of new paintings, is the hidden paintings in Scarlett Lacy’s blacklight art. She doesn’t want to explicitly show nude images, so she uses paint that only appears in the dark.

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