Cleaning Modern Oil Paints - “Scientific investigation into the water sensitivity of twentieth century oil paints”

Tate is the latest recipient of an NHSF award to enable the Gold Open Access publication of a research paper.

The paper, entitled "Scientific investigation into the water sensitivity of twentieth century oil paints", is now published in the peer-reviewed Microchemical Journal. It is co-authored by Judith Lee, Ilaria Bonaduce, Francesca Modugno, Jacopo La Nasa, Bronwyn Ormsby and Klaas Jan van den Berg.

It describes an in-depth investigation into the chemical characteristics of water sensitive paint passages, and likely causal factors. Water sensitivity, which affects many unvarnished twentieth and twenty-first century oil paintings, can be defined as the unwanted removal of pigment and/or original material when a discrete cleaning test is carried out using a dampened cotton swab on the surface of a painting.

Water sensitivity is problematic for conservators, since many of the well-established methods for removing surface dirt (which naturally gathers over time) involves the skilled application of water based cleaning systems.  Since dry-cleaning methods, for example using dry brushes or specialist sponges, are not always particularly effective at removing soiling, water sensitivity can complicate or even prevent effective treatment.

The research behind this paper has been conducted as part of Cleaning Modern Oil Paints (CMOP), a collaborative European research project, funded through the JPI Heritage Plus programme, which runs from June 2015 – May 2018. The project aims to investigate conservation challenges associated with twentieth and twenty-first century oil paintings in order to ensure that modern oil paintings continue to be fit for display for future generations. The research at Tate is led by Principal Conservation Scientist Dr Bronwyn Ormsby, with Postdoctoral Researcher Judith Lee, and with the support of Tate’s Collection Care Research. More information on the project and details of  the key CMOP project dissemination event; Conference on Modern Oil Paints taking place on 23-25 May 2018, are available on Tate’s website.

Winsor & Newton Artist Oil Colour swatches that were studied as part of the microchemical journal paper. Copyright Tate.