Making Colour: Micro-positioning easel gives scientists and public unprecedented detail

By Richard Moss | 26 June 2014

The National Gallery's Making Colour may be illuminating the ways artist have used colour over the centuries, but it's all down to science, engineering and a great big easel

a photo of a large easel contraption with a Cezanne painting held in the middle of it
The new state-of-the-art easel is literally shedding new light on the science behind pigments used in great paintings© The National Gallery, London
The National Gallery’s Making Colour exhibition is illuminating the way artists have used the spectrum in some of the world’s most captivating paintings, but the science behind this peeling back of the layers in Titian, Gainsborough, Cezanne and countless other relies on the latest developments in science and engineering. 

Scientists and curators at the gallery have been using a computer-controlled contraption called a micro-positioning easel, which is capable of safely holding a very large painting and moving it in minute steps to analyses every brush stroke and pixel of colour. 

The innovation has allowed experts to analyse high resolution digital imaging and learn about the structure of paintings, the way they are made and what needs to be done for their preservation.

Infrared imaging, X-ray imaging, electron microscopy and mass spectrometry have been used for a while now to discover more about paintings, the materials used and how they are likely to change over time. But the easel opens up new types of research such as hypersepectral imaging, which can split pictures up into bands of colour undetectable by the human eye.

The results, say scientists, could unlock the mysteries of how a painting was created.

From ultramarine to regal gold and zinging silver, Making Colour uses a series of colour-themed rooms to trace the history of how artists have used materials, natural and artificial, such as minerals and dyes to create colour in paintings from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century.

One of the paintings in the exhibition, Sassoferrato’s Virgin in Prayer, is painted in a rich deep royal blue.

“Look at it from a distance and you might only see a single, strong blue, but if you’re able to look at it much more closely you will see more subtlety to it,” says Joseph Padfield, a conservation scientist at the gallery. 

“You will see the different brushstrokes that form the shadows and the highlights on the cloak and the details of how the fabric has been portrayed.

“If you’re able to use equipment, like our new easel, to capture extremely high resolution images of a painting, then that special experience of beginning to explore how such a fabulous painting was created can be accessible to many more people.”

With accessibility in mind, visitors to the exhibition can get involved in an interactive experiment that will feed into future research on human colour perception. It involves capturing responses of people as they view a picture under different conditions, using a tunable LED light source.

Innovations such as this and the easel, which has been funded through the support of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, are designed to bring the backroom science into the public gallery.

“Many people see the Arts and Science as existing in isolation," says Phillip Nelson, the Council's Chief Executive. "This is far from the truth.

"Scientific and engineering techniques can help us understand how great works were made, how they are perceived by the human brain and how they can be preserved for future generations to appreciate."

So as visitors absorb the beautiful red hues in Degas's Combing the Hair or Masaccio's Saints Jerome and John the Baptist alongside fragments of beautiful crimson velvet brocade, their experience of great artworks also represents a coming together of art and science.

  • Making Colour is at the National Gallery until September 7 2014.

Click on the picture to launch the gallery

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