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Exploring the science of art

Exploring the science of art

Image courtesy: Natalie Recalcitrant

Image courtesy: Natalie Recalcitrant
The Mona Lisa, arguably one of the most famous paintings in history, sits behind a glass wall in the Louvre in Paris—somewhat of a let-down when you have travelled long distances to see her, but also understandable to ensure she is protected and viewed by many generations to come.

The effect of touch or light over long periods on a painting is fairly well known, but what about the impact of the science behind the painting? Most notably free radicals.

This has been the subject of some detailed research undertaken at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology.

In 2012 six artists were taken from their easels and placed in a science laboratory at The University of Melbourne (one of the Centre’s six nodes) learning all about the world of free radicals and the chemical reactions occurring within each brush stroke.

The artist in residence programme—Insight Radical—has led to a greater understanding of how artists’ materials, such as paint, perform and how they can be tailored to better suit the needs of artists.

Free radicals are everywhere, we can’t see them, but they cause chemical reactions.

Picture three children, one is misbehaving and playing on their own, but then that child wants to join in so takes another child away… you’re still left with one cranky child! Free radicals are similar, they are molecules with unpaired electrons, but electrons like to be paired, so free radicals then try to steal an electron from a nearby molecule, to the detriment of the other molecule.

So how does this apply in the artistic world? Free radicals are needed in some instances, for example, they assist in the paint curing process. However, in other instances they are bad; they can cause paint to fade and artworks to degrade.

Part of the Insight Radical residency took artists through ‘hands on’ elements such as making oil paint from basic starting materials. This exercise revealed how free radicals are involved in initiating the chemical reactions that lead to the paint layer curing or hardening, and subsequently how they work to age paint materials.

Insight Radical was established by Dr Renee Beale, a scientist herself and Outreach Manager at the Centre of Excellence.

Dr Beale said the main objective of the programme was to create a dialogue about free radicals between scientists and artists, then tell this story to the community via a series of exhibitions.

“An artist’s studio and science laboratory are not that dissimilar and it was these commonalities that inspired the artists and scientists involved.

“The programme has resulted in a unique exchange of ideas. Researchers have learnt more about artists’ practices, resulting in new research ideas. Likewise artists have gained an understanding of the molecular basis of how paints behave."

One of the artists, Melbourne-based Tony Lloyd, said it was fascinating to learn more about the products he was using every day and the chemical reactions that were occurring.

“I’d never made oil paint before and didn’t even know how paint cured—I became really curious about the chemistry behind some of the things I do in my art practice.

“My residency has provided me with the basic knowledge I require to experiment and explore.”

And scientists now have fuel for the fire to create new and improved products for artists.

During the residency Mr Lloyd mentioned that he adds clove oil to his oil paint—a practice he found in a painting handbook he owns. This delays the curing process and allows him to work with the paint for longer.

After discussions with other researchers in the Centre and scanning previous scientific research, Dr Beale found that the ‘eugenol’ in clove oil was most likely acting as an antioxidant, mopping up the free radicals before they could initiate curing.

Dr Beale said this was one of the exciting outcomes from the programme.

“Artists often want properties in materials that don’t come in off the shelf products.”

“Listening to artists’ ‘wish lists’ allows us to create materials with particular properties tailored to their needs whilst ensuring high quality and longevity of the materials we design.”

While the six artists have now left the science lab and returned to their studios the inspiration of their Insight Radicalexperience will soon be exhibited in London at the renowned Griffin Gallery. It will return to tour Australia later this year with the first show scheduled for November at MCLEMOI Gallery, Sydney

Mr Lloyd said his piece (below) represents the chain reaction of free radical chemistry which is transposed in a landscape painting.

“The final work is a sequence of paintings of landscapes reflected in water, where each painting takes the reflection of the landscape in the previous painting.”

If only Leonardo da Vinci was armed with the knowledge of free radicals when he painted the Mona Lisa!

Insight Radical is an initiative of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Free Radical Chemistry and Biotechnology and Jasco Pty Ltd. It is supported by the Australian Government through the ARC and the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education through the Inspiring Australia program.

For more information email Dr Renee Beale or visit the Insight Radical website.

Top Image courtesy: Natalie Recalcitrant


Copyright Tony Lloyd: The chain reaction of radical chemistry transposed in a landscape painting
Copyright Tony Lloyd: The chain reaction of radical chemistry transposed in a landscape painting


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