Sunday, February 05, 2006

Photgraphing the Creative Process in Infrared Light

Between the 30th of October and the 16th of February, 2003 the National Gallery in London (UK) finally made visible artworks that have been hanging on walls for five or six hundred years. These artworks been hanging invisibly though, completely obscured by there brightly colored younger “siblings”. They are the “underdrawings” – preliminary sketches that the artists make onto the canvas as patterns that are painted directly over (sometimes being more closely followed than others). But, before anyone panics, the curators have not attacked their priceless charges with bottles of turpentine – instead they have used infraredlight, and Infrared sensitive cameras to make photographs of the underdrawing through the layers of paint.

While most Renaissance era paints are transparent to infrared light, inks and charcoals used to make the underdrawings are rich in carbon which reflects the infrared light. A photograph of the reflected infrared light then reveals the underdrawing. Technically, the images are known as Infrared Reflectogram Mosaics – as small segments of the drawings are photographed individually, then the resulting pictures are reassembled by a computer as a “mosaic” into the final image.

These images grant a unique view of the processes of Renaissance masters. In some cases the artist has faithfully followed his plan whereas in others it can be clearly seen where the master has altered his plan on the fly, with obvious differences between the painting and the underdrawing. These underdrawing also allow an insight into the character of the artists: Some prepare intricately detailed underdrawing and then rigorously reproduce every line in paint, while others, like Albrecht Altdorfer, often used only rough scribbles to indicate parts of their paintings that emerge in the detailed manner of the era once depicted in paint.

One can also see in these underdrawings evidence of the labor on the part of apprentices that went into these paintings. In addition to grinding pigment, painting backgrounds and attending the master, it appears that the apprentices where often required to complete the underdrawing – allowing the masters to produce, and sell, more works bearing their signature. The underdrawing of a painting, credited to “the Master of 1518” called “The Flight into Egypt” appears to have been completed by several hands, each contributing a component, like landscape or figures, each covering their specialty.

Physics and art have a long standing relationship. Notable highlights include, going back only as far as the Renaissance today, Leonardo Da Vinci was both an artist and a scientist (back in the days before anyone specialized in a particular science). His notebooks contain both beautiful artwork and amazing inventions. Much more recently, Harvard professor, Rick Heller, has produced artworks inspired by the results of physics calculations he has made. You can look at his research and art online.

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