Classic Paintings Get Laser Treatment

April 29, 2014

A Duke researcher has developed a 3D imaging technique for peering into the layering of a painting. Warren Warren, a chemist and biomedical engineer at Duke, develops laser systems to image human tissues. But he thought his work might be useful for art historians as well.

One of Warren’s methods is pump-probe microscopy, which sends pulses of laser light into molecules to reveal their chemical makeup. While the pump-probe technique usually is used on biological pigments like melanin in skin, Warren applied it to analyze colors in paint as well.

“We built a laser system that was designed to do a good job of diagnosing skin cancer and then realized that we could use exactly that same laser system to look at Renaissance artwork,” he told a Science correspondent.

After testing on some fake paintings, Warren’s team tried the laser on The Crucifixion, painted by Italian artist Puccio Capanna in the early 1300s. The instrument revealed that Capanna used different pigments to create colors that look similar to the eye. The technology could help historians figure out how to best preserve old paintings and possibly help detect forgeries.