Category Archives: Visual Art

ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Arts) 2015 and the pronoun ‘I’

The 2015 International Symposium on Electronic Arts (or ISEA 2015) held  in Vancouver ended yesterday, Aug. 19, 2015. It was quite an experience both as a participant and as a presenter (mentioned in my Aug. 14, 2015 posting, Sneak peek: Steep (1): a digital poetry of gold nanoparticles). Both this ISEA and the one I attended previously in 2009 (Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Dublin, Ireland) were jampacked with sessions, keynote addresses, special events, and exhibitions of various artworks. Exhilarating and exhausting, that is the ISEA experience for me and just about anyone else I talked to here in Vancouver (Canada). In terms of organization, I have to give props to the Irish. Unfortunately, the Vancouver team didn’t seem to have given their volunteers any training and technical difficulties abounded. Basics such as having a poster outside a room noting what session was taking place, signage indicating which artist’s work was being featured, and good technical support (my guy managed to plug in a few things but seemed disinclined or perhaps didn’t have the technical expertise (?) to troubleshoot prior to the presentation) seemed elusive (a keynote presentation had to be moved due to technical requirements [!] plus no one told the volunteer staff who consequently misdirected people). Ooops.

Despite the difficulties, people remained enthusiastic and that’s a tribute to both the participants and, importantly, the organizers. The Vancouver ISEA was a huge undertaking with over 1000 presentation submissions made and over 1800 art work submissions. They had 900+ register and were the first ISEA able to offer payment to artists for their installations. Bravo to Philippe Pasquier, Thecla Schiphorst, Kate Armstrong, Malcolm Levy, and all the others who worked hard to pull this off.

Moving on to ‘I’, while the theme for ISEA 2015 was Disruption, I noticed a number of presentations focused on biology and on networks (in particular, generative networks). In some ways this parallels what’s happening in the sciences where more notice is being given to networks and network communications of all sorts.  For example, there’s an Aug. 19, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily suggesting that our use of the pronoun ‘I’ may become outdated.  What we consider to be an individual may be better understood as a host for a number of communities or networks,

Recent microbiological research has shown that thinking of plants and animals, including humans, as autonomous individuals is a serious over-simplification.

A series of groundbreaking studies have revealed that what we have always thought of as individuals are actually “biomolecular networks” that consist of visible hosts plus millions of invisible microbes that have a significant effect on how the host develops, the diseases it catches, how it behaves and possibly even its social interactions.

“It’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” said Seth Bordenstein, associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, who has contributed to the body of scientific knowledge that is pointing to the conclusion that symbiotic microbes play a fundamental role in virtually all aspects of plant and animal biology, including the origin of new species.

In this case, the parts are the host and its genome plus the thousands of different species of bacteria living in or on the host, along with all their genomes, collectively known as the microbiome. (The host is something like the tip of the iceberg while the bacteria are like the part of the iceberg that is underwater: Nine out of every 10 cells in plant and animal bodies are bacterial. But bacterial cells are so much smaller than host cells that they have generally gone unnoticed.)

An Aug. 19, 2015 Vanderbilt University news release, which originated the news item, describes this provocative idea (no more ‘I’)  further,

Microbiologists have coined new terms for these collective entities — holobiont — and for their genomes — hologenome. “These terms are needed to define the assemblage of organisms that makes up the so-called individual,” said Bordenstein.

In the article “Host Biology in Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes” published online Aug. 18 [2015] in the open access journal PLOS Biology, Bordenstein and his colleague Kevin Theis from the University of Michigan take the general concepts involved in this new paradigm and break them down into underlying principles that apply to the entire field of biology.

They make specific and refutable predictions based on these principles and call for other biologists to test them theoretically and experimentally.

“One of the basic expectations from this conceptual framework is that animal and plant experiments that do not account for what is happening at the microbiological level will be incomplete and, in some cases, will be misleading as well,” said Bordenstein.

The first principle they advance is that holobionts and hologenomes are fundamental units of biological organization.

Another is that evolutionary forces such as natural selection and drift may act on the hologenome not just on the genome. So mutations in the microbiome that affect the fitness of a holobiont are just as important as mutations in the host’s genome. However, they argue that this does not change the basic rules of evolution but simply upgrades the types of biological units that the rules may act upon.

Although it does not change the basic rules of evolution, holobionts do have a way to respond to environmental challenges that is not available to individual organisms: They can alter the composition of their bacterial communities. For example, if a holobiont is attacked by a pathogen that the host cannot defend against, another symbiont may fulfill the job by manufacturing a toxin that can kill the invader. In this light, the microbes are as much part of the holobiont immune system as the host immune genes themselves.

According to Bordenstein, these ideas are gaining acceptance in the microbiology community. At the American Society of Microbiology General Meeting in June [2015], he convened the inaugural session on “Holobionts and Their Hologenomes” and ASM’s flagship journal mBio plans to publish a special issue on the topic in the coming year. [emphases are mine]

However, adoption of these ideas has been slower in other fields.

“Currently, the field of biology has reached an inflection point. The silos of microbiology, zoology and botany are breaking down and we hope that this framework will help further unify these fields,” said Bordenstein.

Not only will this powerful holistic approach affect the basic biological sciences but it also is likely to impact the practice of personalized medicine as well, Bordenstein said.

Take the missing heritability problem, for example. Although genome-wide studies have provided valuable insights into the genetic basis of a number of simple diseases, they have only found a small portion of the genetic causes of a number of more complex conditions such as autoimmune and metabolic diseases.

These may in part be “missing” because the genetic factors that cause them are in the microbiome, he pointed out.

“Instead of being so ‘germophobic,’ we need to accept the fact that we live in and benefit from a microbial world. We are as much an environment for microbes as microbes are for us,” said Bordenstein.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Host Biology in Light of the Microbiome: Ten Principles of Holobionts and Hologenomes by Seth R. Bordenstein and Kevin R. Theis. PLOS DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1002226 Published: August 18, 2015

This is an open access paper.

It’s intriguing to see artists and scientists exploring ideas that resonate with each other. In fact, ISEA 2015 hosted a couple of sessions on BioArt, as well as, having sessions devoted to networks. While, I wasn’t thinking about networks or biological systems when I wrote my poem on gold nanoparticles, I did pose this possibility (how we become the sum of our parts) at the end:

Nature’s alchemy
breathing them
eating them
drinking them
we become gold
discovering what we are

As for how Raewyn handled the idea, words fail, please do go here to see the video here.

Mathematics, music, art, architecture, culture: Bridges 2015

Thanks to Alex Bellos and Tash Reith-Banks for their July 30, 2015 posting on the Guardian science blog network for pointing towards the Bridges 2015 conference,

The Bridges Conference is an annual event that explores the connections between art and mathematics. Here is a selection of the work being exhibited this year, from a Pi pie which vibrates the number pi onto your hand to delicate paper structures demonstrating number sequences. This year’s conference runs until Sunday in Baltimore (Maryland, US).

To whet your appetite, here’s the Pi pie (from the Bellos/Reith-Banks posting),

Pi Pie by Evan Daniel Smith Arduino, vibration motors, tinted silicone, pie tin “This pie buzzes the number pi onto your hand. I typed pi from memory into a computer while using a program I wrote to record it and send it to motors in the pie. The placement of the vibrations on the five fingers uses the structure of the Japanese soroban abacus, and bears a resemblance to Asian hand mnemonics.” Photograph: The Bridges Organisation

Pi Pie by Evan Daniel Smith
Arduino, vibration motors, tinted silicone, pie tin
“This pie buzzes the number pi onto your hand. I typed pi from memory into a computer while using a program I wrote to record it and send it to motors in the pie. The placement of the vibrations on the five fingers uses the structure of the Japanese soroban abacus, and bears a resemblance to Asian hand mnemonics.”
Photograph: The Bridges Organisation

You can find our more about Bridges 2015 here and should you be in the vicinity of Baltimore, Maryland, as a member of the public, you are invited to view the artworks on July 31, 2015,

July 29 – August 1, 2015 (Wednesday – Saturday)
Excursion Day: Sunday, August 2
A Collaborative Effort by
The University of Baltimore and Bridges Organization

A Five-Day Conference and Excursion
Wednesday, July 29 – Saturday, August 1
(Excursion Day on Sunday, August 2)

The Bridges Baltimore Family Day on Friday afternoon July 31 will be open to the Public to visit the BB Art Exhibition and participate in a series of events such as BB Movie Festival, and a series of workshops.

I believe the conference is being held at the University of Baltimore. Presumably, that’s where you’ll find the art show, etc.

Michelangelo, clinical anatomy, mathematics, the Golden Ratio, and a myth

I would have thought an article about Michelangelo, mathematics, and the Golden Ratio would be in a journal dedicated to the arts or mathematics or possibly both. Not even my tenth guess would  have been Clinical Anatomy. As for the myth, not everyone subscribes to the Golden Ratio theory of beauty.

A July 20, 2015 Wiley Periodicals press release (also on EurekAlert) announces the publication of the research,

New research provides mathematical evidence that Michelangelo used the Golden Ratio of 1.6 when painting The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The Golden Ratio is found when you divide a line into two parts so that the longer part divided by the smaller part is equal to the whole length divided by the longer part.

The Golden Ratio has been linked with greater structural efficiency and has puzzled scientists for centuries due to its frequent occurrence in nature–for example in snail shells and flower petals. The Golden Ratio can also be found in a variety of works by architects and designers, in famous musical compositions, and in the creations of many artists.

The findings suggest that the beauty and harmony found in the works of Michelangelo may not be based solely on his anatomical knowledge. He likely knew that anatomical structures incorporating the Golden Ratio offer greater structural efficiency and, therefore, he used it to enhance the aesthetic quality of his works.

“We believe that this discovery will bring a new dimension to the great work of Michelangelo,” said Dr. Deivis de Campos, author of the Clinical Anatomy study.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

More than a neuroanatomical representation in The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo Buonarroti, a representation of the Golden Ratio by Deivis De Campos, Tais Malysz,  João Antonio Bonatto-Costa, Geraldo Pereira Jotz, Lino Pinto De Oliveira Junior, and Andrea Oxley da Rocha. Clinical Anatomy DOI: 10.1002/ca.22580 Article first published online: 17 JUL 2015

© 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

This paper is open access.

Golden Ratio myth

One final comment, it seems not everyone is convinced that the Golden Ratio plays an important role in design, art, and architecture according to an April 13, 2015 article by John Brownlee for Fast Company titled: The Golden Ratio: Design’s Biggest Myth,

In the world of art, architecture, and design, the golden ratio has earned a tremendous reputation. Greats like Le Corbusier and Salvador Dalí have used the number in their work. The Parthenon, the Pyramids at Giza, the paintings of Michelangelo, the Mona Lisa, even the Apple logo are all said to incorporate it.

It’s bullshit. The golden ratio’s aesthetic bona fides are an urban legend, a myth, a design unicorn. Many designers don’t use it, and if they do, they vastly discount its importance. There’s also no science to really back it up. Those who believe the golden ratio is the hidden math behind beauty are falling for a 150-year-old scam.

Fascinating, non?

Do artists see colour at the nanoscale? It would seem so

I’ve wondered how Japanese artists of the 16th to 18th centuries were able to beat gold down to the nanoscale for application to screens. How could they see what they were doing? I may have an answer at last. According to some new research, it seems that the human eye can detect colour at the nanoscale.

Before getting to the research, here’s the Namban screen story.

Japanese Namban Screen. ca. 1550. In Portugal-Japão: 450 anos de memórias. Embaixada de Portugal no Japão, 1993. [downloaded from http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/exhibitions/exhibits/show/portuguese-speaking-diaspora/china-and-japan]

Japanese Namban Screen. ca. 1550. In Portugal-Japão: 450 anos de memórias. Embaixada de Portugal no Japão, 1993. [downloaded from http://www.indiana.edu/~liblilly/digital/exhibitions/exhibits/show/portuguese-speaking-diaspora/china-and-japan]

This image is from an Indiana University at Bloomington website featuring a page titled, Portuguese-Speaking Diaspora,

A detail from one of four large folding screens on display in the Museu de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. Namban was the word used to refer to Portuguese traders who, in this scene, are dressed in colorful pantaloons and accompanied by African slaves. Jesuits appear in black robes, while the Japanese observe the newcomers from inside their home. The screen materials included gold-covered copper and paper, tempera paint, silk, and lacquer.

Copyright © 2015 The Trustees of Indiana University

Getting back to the Japanese artists, here’s how their work was described in a July 2, 2014 Springer press release on EurekAlert,

Ancient Japanese gold leaf artists were truly masters of their craft. An analysis of six ancient Namban paper screens show that these artifacts are gilded with gold leaf that was hand-beaten to the nanometer scale. [emphasis mine] Study leader Sofia Pessanha of the Atomic Physics Center of the University of Lisbon in Portugal believes that the X-ray fluorescence technique her team used in the analysis could also be used to date other artworks without causing any damage to them. The results are published in Springer’s journal Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing.

Gold leaf refers to a very thin sheet made from a combination of gold and other metals. It has almost no weight and can only be handled by specially designed tools. Even though the ancient Egyptians were probably the first to gild artwork with it, the Japanese have long been credited as being able to produce the thinnest gold leaf in the world. In Japanese traditional painting, decorating with gold leaf is named Kin-haku, and the finest examples of this craft are the Namban folding screens, or byobu. These were made during the late Momoyama (around 1573 to 1603) and early Edo (around 1603 to 1868) periods.

Pessanha’s team examined six screens that are currently either part of a museum collection or in a private collection in Portugal. Four screens belong to the Momoyama period, and two others were decorated during the early Edo period. The researchers used various X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy techniques to test the thickness and characteristics of the gold layers. The method is completely non-invasive, no samples needed to be taken, and therefore the artwork was not damaged in any way. Also, the apparatus needed to perform these tests is portable and can be done outside of a laboratory.

The gilding was evaluated by taking the attenuation or weakening of the different characteristic lines of gold leaf layers into account. The methodology was tested to be suitable for high grade gold alloys with a maximum of 5 percent influence of silver, which is considered negligible.

The two screens from the early Edo period were initially thought to be of the same age. However, Pessanha’s team found that gold leaf on a screen kept at Museu Oriente in Lisbon was thinner, hence was made more recently. This is in line with the continued development of the gold beating techniques carried out in an effort to obtain ever thinner gold leaf.

So, how did these artists beat gold leaf down to the nanoscale and then use the sheets in their art work? This July 10, 2015 news item on Azonano may help to answer that question,

The human eye is an amazing instrument and can accurately distinguish between the tiniest, most subtle differences in color. Where human vision excels in one area, it seems to fall short in others, such as perceiving minuscule details because of the natural limitations of human optics.

In a paper published today in The Optical Society’s new, high-impact journal Optica, a research team from the University of Stuttgart, Germany and the University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland, has harnessed the human eye’s color-sensing strengths to give the eye the ability to distinguish between objects that differ in thickness by no more than a few nanometers — about the thickness of a cell membrane or an individual virus.

A July 9, 2015 Optical Society news release (also on EurkeAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details,

This ability to go beyond the diffraction limit of the human eye was demonstrated by teaching a small group of volunteers to identify the remarkably subtle color differences in light that has passed through thin films of titanium dioxide under highly controlled and precise lighting conditions. The result was a remarkably consistent series of tests that revealed a hitherto untapped potential, one that rivals sophisticated optics tools that can measure such minute thicknesses, such as ellipsometry.

“We were able to demonstrate that the unaided human eye is able to determine the thickness of a thin film — materials only a few nanometers thick — by simply observing the color it presents under specific lighting conditions,” said Sandy Peterhänsel, University of Stuttgart, Germany and principal author on the paper. The actual testing was conducted at the University of Eastern Finland.

The Color and Thickness of Thin Films

Thin films are essential for a variety of commercial and manufacturing applications, including anti-reflective coatings on solar panels. These films can be as small as a few to tens of nanometers thick. The thin films used in this experiment were created by applying layer after layer of single atoms on a surface. Though highly accurate, this is a time-consuming procedure and other techniques like vapor deposition are used in industry.

The optical properties of thin films mean that when light interacts with their surfaces it produces a wide range of colors. This is the same phenomenon that produces scintillating colors in soap bubble and oil films on water.

The specific colors produced by this process depend strongly on the composition of the material, its thickness, and the properties of the incoming light. This high sensitivity to both the material and thickness has sometimes been used by skilled engineers to quickly estimate the thickness of films down to a level of approximately 10-20 nanometers.

This observation inspired the research team to test the limits of human vision to see how small of a variation could be detected under ideal conditions.

“Although the spatial resolving power of the human eye is orders of magnitude too weak to directly characterize film thicknesses, the interference colors are well known to be very sensitive to variations in the film,” said Peterhänsel.

Experimental Setup

The setup for this experiment was remarkably simple. A series of thin films of titanium dioxide were manufactured one layer at a time by atomic deposition. While time consuming, this method enabled the researchers to carefully control the thickness of the samples to test the limitations of how small a variation the research subjects could identify.

The samples were then placed on a LCD monitor that was set to display a pure white color, with the exception of a colored reference area that could be calibrated to match the apparent surface colors of the thin films with various thicknesses.

The color of the reference field was then changed by the test subject until it perfectly matched the reference sample: correctly identifying the color meant they also correctly determined its thickness. This could be done in as little as two minutes, and for some samples and test subjects their estimated thickness differed only by one-to-three nanometers from the actual value measured by conventional means. This level of precision is far beyond normal human vision.

Compared to traditional automated methods of determining the thickness of a thin film, which can take five to ten minutes per sample using some techniques, the human eye performance compared very favorably.

Since human eyes tire very easily, this process is unlikely to replace automated methods. It can, however, serve as a quick check by an experienced technician. “The intention of our study never was solely to compare the human color vision to much more sophisticated methods,” noted Peterhänsel. “Finding out how precise this approach can be was the main motivation for our work.”

The researchers speculate that it may be possible to detect even finer variations if other control factors are put in place. “People often underestimate human senses and their value in engineering and science. This experiment demonstrates that our natural born vision can achieve exceptional tasks that we normally would only assign to expensive and sophisticated machinery,” concludes Peterhänsel.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Human color vision provides nanoscale accuracy in thin-film thickness characterization by Sandy Peterhänsel, Hannu Laamanen, Joonas Lehtolahti, Markku Kuittinen, Wolfgang Osten, and Jani Tervo. Optica Vol. 2, Issue 7, pp. 627-630 (2015) •doi: 10.1364/OPTICA.2.000627

This article appears to be open access.

It would seem that the artists creating the Namban screens exploited the ability to see at the nanoscale, which leads me to  wonder how many people who work with color/colour all the time such as visual artists, interior designers, graphic designers, printers, and more can perceive at the nanoscale. These German and Finnish researchers may want to work with some of these professionals in their next study.

Convergence at Canada’s Perimeter Institute: art/science and physics

It’s a cornucopia of convergence at Canada’s Perimeter Institute (PI). First, there’s a June 16, 2015 posting by Colin Hunter about converging art and science in the person of Alioscia Hamma,

In his professional life, Hamma is a lecturer in the Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) program and an Associate Professor at China’s Tsinghua University. His research seeks new insights into quantum entanglement, quantum statistical mechanics, and other aspects of the fundamental nature of reality.

Though he dreamed during his boyhood in Naples of one day becoming a comic book artist, he pursued physics because he believed – still believes – it is our most reliable tool for decoding our universe.

“Mathematics is ideal, clean, pure, and meaningless. Natural sciences are living, concrete, dirty, and meaningful. Physics is right in the middle, like the human condition,” says Hamma.

Art too, he says, resides in the middle ground between the world of ideals and the world as it presents itself to our senses.

So he draws. …

Perimeter Institute has provided a video where Hamma shares his ideas,

This is very romantic as in literature-romantic. If I remember rightly, ‘truth is beauty and beauty is truth’ was the motto of the romantic poets, Byron, Keats, and Shelley. It’s intriguing to hear similar ideas being applied to physics, philosophy, and art.

H/t to Speaking Up For Canadian Science regarding this second ‘convergence at PI‘. From the Convergence conference page on the Perimeter Institute website,

Convergence is Perimeter’s first-ever alumni reunion and a new kind of physics conference providing a “big picture” overview of fundamental physics and its future.

Physics is at a turning point. The most sophisticated experiments ever devised are decoding our universe with unprecedented clarity — from the quantum to the cosmos — and revealing a stunning simplicity that theory has yet to explain.

Convergence will bring together many of the world’s best minds in physics to probe the field’s most exciting ideas and chart a course for 21st century physics. The event will also celebrate, through commemorative lectures, the centenaries of two defining discoveries of the 20th century: Noether’s theorem and Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Converge with us June 20-24. [Registration is now closed]

Despite registration being closed it is still possible to attend online,

CONVERGE ONLINE

Whether you’re at Convergence in person or joining us online, there are many ways to join the conversation:

You can find PI’s Convergence blog here.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), music, and data storage

David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog) has written up, as he so often does, a fascinating art/science piece in his May 28, 2015 post (Note: A link has been removed),

Opening next month [June 2015] at the Dilston Grove Gallery at GDP London is Music of the Spheres, an exhibition that uses bioinformatics to record music.  Dr. Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute has been working on new technologies for encoding large amounts of information into DNA.  Collaborating with Charlotte Jarvis, the two have worked on installations of bubbles that would contain DNA encoded with music (the DNA is suspended in soap solution).

There’s more information about the exhibit on the Music of the Spheres webpage on the CGP London website,

Music of the Spheres utilises new bioinformatics technology developed by Dr. Nick Goldman to encode a new musical recording by the Kreutzer Quartet into DNA.

The DNA has been suspended in soap solution and will be used by visual artist Charlotte Jarvis to create performances and installations filled with bubbles. The recording will fill the air, pop on visitors skin and literally bathe the audience in music.

Dr. Nick Goldman and Charlotte Jarvis have been working together for the past year to create a series of moving visual and musical experiences that explore the scope and future ubiquity of DNA technologies.

The Kreutzer Quartet’s new composition for string quartet loosely follows the traditional form of a concerto, in comprising of three musical movements. The second movement only exists in the form of a recording encoded into DNA.

For the exhibition the DNA will be suspended in soap solution and used to create silent installations filled with bubbles. The bubbles will be accompanied by a video projection showing the musicians playing in the server room of the European Bioinformatics Institute, Cambridge.

In response to the growing challenge of storing vast quantities of biological data generated by biomedical research Dr. Nick Goldman and the European Bioinformatics Institute have developed a method to encode huge amounts of information in DNA itself. Every day the huge quantities and speed of data pouring into servers gets larger. When research groups sequence DNA the file sizes are too large to be kept on local computers. It is this problem that was the motivation for Nick Goldman to develop his new technology. Their goal is a system that will safely store the equivalent of one million CDs in a gram of DNA for 10,000 years. Nick’s work was has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian and on BBC News amongst other media outlets.

The Kreutzer Quartet will play the full-length composition live during the preview on 12 June [2015] timed with the setting of the sun through the large westerly windows. [emphasis mine] During the passage of the second movement the stage will fall silent, the music will be released into the auditorium in the form of bubbles. The performance will be accompanied by film projection and a discussion about the project.

The exhibit runs from June 12 – July 5, 2015. Hours and location can be found on the CGP website.

The Music of the Spheres DNA/music project was first mentioned here in a May 5, 2014 post about the launch of the book ‘Synthetic Aesthetics: Investigating Synthetic Biology’s Designs on Nature’. The launch featured a number of performances and events, scroll down abut 80% of the way for the then description of Music of the Spheres.

The use of graphene scanners in art conservation

A May 20, 2015 news item on phys.org describes a new method of examining art work without damaging it,

Museum curators, art restorers, archaeologists and the broader public will soon be able to learn much more about paintings and other historic objects, thanks to an EU project which has become a pioneer in non-invasive art exploration techniques, based on a graphene scanner.

Researchers working on INSIDDE [INtegration of cost-effective Solutions for Imaging, Detection, and Digitisation of hidden Elements in paintings], which received a EUR 2.9 million investment from FP7 ICT Research Programme, have developed a graphene scanner that can explore under the surface of a painting, or through the dirt covering an ancient object unearthed in an archaeological dig, without touching it.

‘As well as showing sketches or previous paintings that have remained hidden beneath a particular artwork, the scanner, together with post-processing techniques, will allow us to identify and distinguish brushstrokes to understand the creative process,’ explained Javier Gutiérrez, of Spanish technology company Treelogic, which is leading the project.

A May 19, 2015 CORDIS press release, which originated the news item, provides more details about the graphene scanner’s cabilities,

The challenge in this field is to develop advanced technologies that avoid damaging the artwork under examination. Solvents and their potential side effects are progressively being replaced by the likes of lasers, to removed dirt and varnish from paintings. Limestone-producing bacteria can be used to fill cracks in sculptures. INSIDDE is taking a step further in this direction by using terahertz, a frequency band lying between microwave and infrared in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Until graphene, considered to be one of the materials of the future, came along it was difficult to generate terahertz frequencies to acquire such detail. Graphene in this application acts as a frequency multiplier, allowing scientists to reveal previously hidden features such as brushstroke textures, pigments and defects, without harming the work.

Although X-ray and infrared reflectography are used elsewhere to carry out this type of study, they heat the object and cannot reach the intermediate layers between the gesso and the varnish in paintings, or other characteristic elements in ceramics. INSIDDE’s device, using terahertz frequency, works in these intermediate layers and does not heat the object.

In conjunction with a commercial scanner mapping the art’s upper layers, it can generate full 3D data from the object in a completely non-intrusive way and processes this data to extract and interpret features invisible to the naked eye, in a way that has never been done before.

INSIDDE is developing this technology to benefit the general public, too. The 2D and 3D digital models it is producing will be uploaded to the Europeana network and the project aims to make the results available through a smartphone and tablet app to be exploited by local and regional museums. The app is currently being trialled at one of the partners, the Asturias Fine Art Museum in Oviedo. It shows the different layers of the painting the visitor is looking at and provides additional information and audio.

The press release notes that the technology offers some new possibilities,

Although the scanner is still in its trial and calibration phase, the project participants have already unveiled some promising results. Marta Flórez, of the Asturias Fine Art Museum, explained: ‘Using the prototype, we have been able to distinguish clearly between different pigments, which in some cases will avoid having to puncture the painting in order to find out what materials the artist used.’

The prototype is also being validated with some recently unearthed 3rd Century pottery from the Stara Zagora regional history museum in Bulgaria. When the project ends in December 2015, one of the options the consortium is assessing is putting this cost-effective solution at the service of smaller local and regional museums without art restoration departments so that they too, like the bigger museums, can make important discoveries about their collections.

You can find out more about INSIDDE here.

Nanotechnology and drones for London’s (UK) Old Royal Naval College (ORNC)

It’s an art conservation project where nanotechnology and drones will be employed to help preserve the Old Royal Naval College’s (ORNC) Painted Hall. From an April 12, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now,

Plans for a major conservation project to restore the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) in Greenwich, UK, will be announced in the US at an event on 14th May 2015 hosted by the British Consulate General in New York.

The ORNC, Sir Christopher Wren’s twin-domed riverside masterpiece stands on the site of the Greenwich Palace, Henry VIII’s birthplace and favorite royal residence. It is one of the most important ensembles in European baroque architecture.

Following a £2.77 million pledge in November 2014 from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the ORNC are embarking on the second stage of its plans to restore the Painted Hall to its former glory. A further £4 million is required to achieve the full scale of this landmark project.

Cutting-edge technologies are being applied for this conservation project, including drones and nanotechnology-enabled materials.

About the Old Royal Naval College

The Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) in Greenwich was established as the Royal Hospital for Seamen by King William III and Queen Mary II in 1694.

Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, it is one of the most important ensembles in European baroque architecture. From 1705, the Royal Hospital provided modest, wood-lined cabins as accommodation for retired sailors, housing as many as 2,700 residents at its peak in 1814. The last naval pensioners left in 1869, when the site became home to the Royal Naval College, an officers’ training academy, until 1997. When the Navy left, an independent charity was established to conserve the site for present and future generations, and create enjoyment, learning and unique cultural experiences for everyone.

Today this historic landmark is open to the public and is the home of three unique and free to visit attractions; the Painted Hall, the Chapel, and the Discover Greenwich visitor centre.

The Painted Hall is the greatest piece of decorative painting in England and has been described as ‘the Sistine Chapel of the UK’. The walls and ceilings were painted by Sir James Thornhill between 1708 and 1727.

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul is a neo-classical masterpiece by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart and William Newton. Featuring a Samuel Green organ and an altarpiece painted by Benjamin West, it is one of the finest eighteenth century interiors in existence.

Here’s the Painted Hall and Chapel,

 

 Gryffindor derivative work: Fpo (talk) - Royal_Naval_College_Greenwich_001.JPG Royal_Naval_College_Greenwich_002.JPG  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Gryffindor derivative work: Fpo (talk) – Royal_Naval_College_Greenwich_001.JPG Royal_Naval_College_Greenwich_002.JPG Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

You can find out more about the ORNC here.

Masterpieces seen in a new light

Caption: This image shows: After Raphael 1483 - 1520 probably before 1600 Oil on wood 87 x 61.3 cm Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876 Credit: © National Gallery, London

Caption: This image shows: After Raphael 1483 – 1520
probably before 1600
Oil on wood
87 x 61.3 cm
Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876
Credit: © National Gallery, London

An April 13, 2015 Optical Society news release (also on EurekAlert) describes a new technique for ‘seeing’ below the surface of a painting without taking samples,

A painting hanging on the wall in an art gallery tells one story. What lies beneath its surface may tell quite another.

Often in a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Leonardo, a Van Eyck, or any other great masterpiece of western art, the layers of paint are covered with varnish, sometimes several coats applied at different times over their history. The varnish was originally applied to protect the paint underneath and make the colors appear more vivid, but over the centuries it can degrade. Conservators carefully clean off the old varnish and replace it with new, but to do this safely it is useful to understand the materials and structure of the painting beneath the surface. Conservation scientists can glean this information by analyzing the hidden layers of paint and varnish.

Now, researchers from Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology have partnered with the National Gallery in London to develop an instrument capable of non-invasively capturing subsurface details from artwork at a high resolution. Their setup, published in an Optics Express paper, will allow conservators and conservation scientists to more effectively peek beneath the surface of paintings and artifacts to learn not only how the artist built up the original composition, but also what coatings have been applied to it over the years.

Traditionally, analyzing the layers of a painting requires taking a very small physical sample — usually around a quarter of a millimeter across — to view under a microscope. The technique provides a cross-section of the painting’s layers, which can be imaged at high resolution and analyzed to gain detailed information on the chemical composition of the paint, but does involve removing some original paint, even if only a very tiny amount. When studying valuable masterpieces, conservation scientists must therefore sample very selectively from already-damaged areas, often only taking a few minute samples from a large canvas.

More recently, researchers have begun to use non-invasive imaging techniques to study paintings and other historical artifacts. For example, Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) was originally developed for medical imaging but has also been applied to art conservation. Because it uses a beam of light to scan the intact painting without removing physical samples, OCT allows researchers to analyze the painting more extensively. However, the spatial resolution of commercially-available OCT setups is not high enough to fully map the fine layers of paint and varnish.

The Nottingham Trent University researchers gave OCT an upgrade. “We’re trying to see how far we can go with non-invasive techniques. We wanted to reach the kind of resolution that conventional destructive techniques have reached,” explained Haida Liang, who led the project.

In OCT, a beam of light is split: half is directed towards the sample, and the other half is sent to a reference mirror. The light scatters off both of these surfaces. By measuring the combined signal, which effectively compares the returned light from the sample versus the reference, the apparatus can determine how far into the sample the light penetrated. By repeating this procedure many times across an area, researchers can build up a cross-sectional map of the painting.

Liang and her colleagues used a broadband laser-like light source — a concentrated beam of light containing a wide range of frequencies. The wider frequency range allows for more precise data collection, but such light sources were not commercially available until recently.

Along with a few other modifications, the addition of the broadband light source enabled the apparatus to scan the painting at a higher resolution. When tested on a late 16th-century copy of a Raphael painting, housed at the National Gallery in London, it performed as well as traditional invasive imaging techniques.

“We are able to not only match the resolution but also to see some of the layer structures with better contrast. That’s because OCT is particularly sensitive to changes in refractive index,” said Liang. In some places, the ultra-high resolution OCT setup identified varnish layers that were almost indistinguishable from each other under the microscope.

Eventually, the researchers plan to make their instrument available to other art institutions. It could also be useful for analyzing historical manuscripts, which cannot be physically sampled in the same way that paintings can.

In a parallel paper recently published in Optics Express, the researchers also improved the depth into the painting that their apparatus can scan. The two goals are somewhat at odds: using a longer wavelength light source could enhance the penetration depth, but shorter wavelength light (as used in their current setup) provides the best resolution.

“The next challenge is perhaps to be able to do that in one instrument, as well as to extract chemical information from different layers,” said Liang.

Here are links to and citations for the two recent papers published by Liang and her team,

Ultra-high resolution Fourier domain optical coherence tomography for old master paintings by C. S. Cheung, M. Spring, and H. Liang. Optics Express, Vol. 23, Issue 8, pp. 10145-10157 (2015) http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/OE.23.010145

High resolution Fourier domain optical coherence tomography in the 2 μm wavelength range using a broadband supercontinuum source by C. S. Cheung, J. M. O. Daniel, M. Tokurakawa, W. A. Clarkson, and H. Liang. Optics Express, Vol. 23, Issue 3, pp. 1992-2001 (2015) http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/OE.23.001992

Both papers are open access.