Smartphone app helps researchers track art ‘acne’

a photo of a painting of a landsacpe with a huge mountain in the background
This oil painting by Georgia O’Keefe called “Pedernal” has zits. Researchers now know why these damaging bumps form. Chemicals in the paint have reacted to form small knobs.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Like a teen’s skin, oil paintings can break out in zits. Researchers want to prevent these flare-ups, which can damage priceless art. A group of scientists has now developed a computer program to track these bumps.

Artists and museum experts have known for many years that oil paintings can form tiny blisters. As these bumps grow, the surface paint can crack and flake off like dry skin. Georgia O’Keeffe was an early modern painter in the United States. She had noticed those breakouts on her own artwork. Some people suspected the bumps came from her studio in New Mexico. Desert sand might have mixed with her paints as she worked.

Now researchers have identified the true culprit. Chemicals in the paint react to make metal soaps. Such metal soaps form beneath the surface of some 70 percent of all oil paintings. Art experts have seen them on works by Rembrandt, Francisco de Goya and Vincent van Gogh.

“It’s not an unusual phenomenon,” says Marc Walton. This art expert is a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Walton discussed the metal-soap problem during a press conference, here, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Roughly 20 years ago, scientists learned what makes metal soaps. Oil paints are a mix of fats, pigments and metal ions. The negatively charged fats can react with positively charged metal ions (such as zinc and lead). These form tiny structures known as liquid crystals. These bits eventually gather into globs that look like tiny white…

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