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When Picasso Went Industrial

Scientists are studying Picasso paintings to figure out if he used industrial paint. © Sarah Everts

Last week curators, conservators, and museum scientists congregated in Marseille, France, to discuss a quirky fad among painters such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Wassily Kandinsky. During the first half of the 20th century, these artists began using newly invented industrial paint called Ripolin, intended for walls, instead of traditional oil paints.

One major motivation was time: Industrial wall paint dries in a matter of hours, while oil paint can take months. Like the rest of us, these artists had moments of procrastination. Being able to produce work just days before the opening of a new exhibit was certainly a perk, says Francesca Casadio, an organizer of the conference From Can To Canvas, and the director of conservation science at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Artists had other motivations for using Ripolin, such as shocking the stodgy traditional art world by using an industrial product, Casadio says. Some motivations were probably purely aesthetic: Industrial paint was glossier than matte oil paint. And in addition, artists could achieve unusual textures on artwork surfaces with the quick drying paint.

Canvas “wrinkles” hint at Picasso’s use of industrial paint on artwork, because the surface of the coating dries more quickly than the base. © Sarah Everts

For example, if an artist laid on a thick dollop of industrial paint, the surface layer would dry quickly. But deeper layers would stay wet and start sliding underneath the dried layer to create wrinkles on the canvas’ surface.

Art historians have long known about industrial paint use (Kandinsky kept super detailed diaries, for example). But now these art historians want to diagnose whether a painting was produced with industrial paint, oil paint or a mixture of both. And they understandably want to get this information without providing scientists with a huge paint sample from a masterpiece.

That’s where the researchers like Casadio come in. Analytical chemistry techniques such as infrared spectroscopy can be used to take a fingerprint of the paint’s molecular makeup—but without requiring a sample. Scientists shine infra red light at points in the painting and then measure which wavelengths of this light get absorbed. Different paints absorb light differently, and that’s the fingerprint these museum scientists are after.

But just like forensic scientists working on a crime scene, a fingerprint is only useful if it can be matched to a fingerprint from a database of suspects. Museum scientists needed to build up a database of infra red spectra of Ripolin paint samples. Then they can match painting spectra to their reference database spectra to conclude whether the paint was industrial or not.

Ripolin paint cans bought online by museum scientists. Credit: Art Institute of Chicago

Finding Ripolin paint samples from the early 20th century was very tricky, Casadio says. That’s because not many people in their right mind keep old paint cans around for decades and decades. Furthermore, how the heck do you find people with this paint can predilection who also want to sell one to you?

Then came eBay.

Thanks to online shopping sites (and a little analytical chemistry), scientists have built up Ripolin paint databases that can help identify whether artwork was made with industrial paint or with good old-fashioned oil paint.

1 Comment

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  • May 31st 201117:05
    by Rick Mullin


    Well, the headline says it all~,:^)

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