Professor discovers new use for laser in art world

Jul 04, 2013 by Martha Waggoner
In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, a Lorenzo Lotto painting from the Renaissance is placed under a microscope at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

A U.S. professor who developed a laser to study melanoma has discovered a new use for it: uncovering what's underneath artwork without damaging the pieces.

Dr. Warren S. Warren was at the National Gallery in London, looking at an exhibit on art forgeries, when he realized that the art world used that were 30 or 40 years old. So he began investigating whether lasers could be used to safely uncover the mysteries underneath layers of paint.

So far, the answer is a qualified yes.

Warren and others in Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomedical Imaging, which he leads, have found they can use Warren's pump-probe laser to create three-dimensional cross-sections of art that let researchers see colors and layers and maybe, at some point, discover the source of materials.

"It's showing some real promise, and that's exciting," said John Delaney, senior imaging scientist in the conservation division of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Delaney, who researches how to adapt noninvasive analytical imaging methods to help identify and map artists' materials, has seen the laser system at work.

In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, a laser is redirected through a prism in the process of examining art with pump-probe lasers at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The N.C. Museum of Art's 14th-century "Crucifixion" by Puccio Capanna was the first to get a pump-probe laser exam. It revealed a thick layer of lapis lazuli over Madonna's mantle, said William Brown, the museum's chief conservator. Typically, that blue is achieved with a layer of the less expensive azurite, covered with a thin layer of lapis, which was more expensive than gold at the time, he said.

"This tells us it was a really important painting," said Brown, adding that it could be part of an altarpiece at the Vatican.

In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, senior grad student Tana Viilafona and Bill Bowman with the North Carolina Museum of Art, place a painting under a microscope at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Typically, an conservationist uses a scalpel to remove tiny samples from a painting to learn more about both the painting and the materials used. That method damages the painting and is limited in where a can nick at the paint—corners and background, for example, and but not faces.

The pump-probe laser system provides a three-dimensional view of any part of a painting without taking a chip. Researchers can zoom in and out, like looking at a layer cake, and separate colors to see what was originally on the canvas.

In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, a laser is redirected through a prism in the process of examining art with pump-probe lasers at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

"Through these techniques, you're also understanding the technology that went into the creation of these paintings," Brown said. "And you can chart the whole history of the world through technology and technology innovations. It affects the economy, it affects everything."

The is attracting attention from other conservationists, including those who care for the Dead Sea Scrolls, Warren said. They want to know if the pump-probe can let them read what's in scrolls that are too fragile to unwind.

In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, Bill Bowman, chief conservator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, holds a Lorenzo Lotto painting from the Renaissance at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, senior grad student Tana Viilafona examines a painting under a microscope at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, senior grad student Tana Viilafona and associate research professor Martin Fisher examine computer generated information at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

In this Thursday, June 27, 2013 photo, senior grad student Tana Viilafona points to information gathered using lasers to examine artwork at Duke University in Durham, N.C. The North Carolina Museum of Art is working with Duke University's Center for Molecular and Biomolecular Imaging using pump-probe lasers to clean and examine art. Pump-probe laser imaging is a technique originally designed by Dr. Warren S. Warren, director of CMBI at Duke, to use in melanoma diagnoses. The technology is now being applied to art, allowing art conservators to better recognize the paints or other materials used when the work was originally created. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

"Nothing has to be perfect," Delaney said. "We're looking for what can help us solve problems that we don't have a good way to solve now. And this shows some potential."

Explore further: New chip makes testing for antibiotic-resistant bacteria faster, easier

Related Stories

Colorful wall hangings can contain toxic substances

Nov 12, 2012

Traditional Swedish bonad paintings can contain toxic substances such as arsenic, reveals new research from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, in which painting conservator and conservation scientist Ingalill Nyström ...

Imaging method for eye disease used to eye art forgeries

Feb 03, 2010

Scientists in Poland are describing how a medical imaging technique has taken on a second life in revealing forgery of an artist's signature and changes in inscriptions on paintings that are hundreds of years ...

Repentir app: Exploring art at a stroke

Apr 26, 2013

A unique app which allows you to peel back the layers of a masterpiece and uncover a previously hidden world has been developed by experts from Newcastle and Northumbria universities. The 'Repentir' smart phone and iPad app ...

Recommended for you

New chip makes testing for antibiotic-resistant bacteria faster, easier

7 hours ago

We live in fear of 'superbugs': infectious bacteria that don't respond to treatment by antibiotics, and can turn a routine hospital stay into a nightmare. A 2015 Health Canada report estimates that superbugs have already cost Canadians $1 billion, and are a "serious and growing issue." Each year two million people in the U.S. contract antibiotic-re ...

Researchers find 'decoder ring' powers in micro RNA

9 hours ago

MicroRNA can serve as a "decoder ring" for understanding complex biological processes, a team of New York University chemists has found. Their study, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, points ...

DNA mutations get harder to hide

12 hours ago

Rice University researchers have developed a method to detect rare DNA mutations with an approach hundreds of times more powerful than current methods.

Use your smartphone for biosensing

14 hours ago

An Australian research team has shown that smartphones can be reconfigured as cost-effective, portable bioanalytical devices, with details reported in the latest edition of the Open Access Journal 'Sensors'.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.