Artistic Masterpieces Revealed Using Uni of Melbourne Paint Stripper

Previously hidden artistic masterpieces on Melbourne’s walls are being unveiled with the help of a new scientific paint stripper developed by a University of Melbourne researcher.

Ms Jocelyn Evans from the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation has developed a gentle paint-removal system that can remove layers of paint covering old artworks, without damaging the originals.

“It’s impossible to describe the feeling when uncovering these astonishing murals and being the first to see them in decades,” says Ms Jocelyn Evans, who was recently named as one of the top 16 finalists in the national Fresh Science Awards.

Ms Evans investigated how slow-acting paint strippers, called dibasic esters, act on original paintings that have been painted over through time and how conservators could use them to remove the non-original ‘overpaint’ from works of art.

“Overpaint—where the original paint layer of an art-work or mural is covered by later paint like house-paint—is a common problem in conservation,” Ms Evans says. “The difficulty lies in trying to remove the overpaint without damaging the original. Most chemical systems that attack the overpaint also harm the original paint.”

“In essence, dibasic esters have a strong softening effect on paint films. But unlike other chemicals commonly used in paint-strippers, they penetrate quite slowly, allowing us to remove the upper paint layer before they can reach the original layer underneath.”

Dibasic esters had already been used in commercial paint strippers to remove non-original paint in a variety of contexts; however the idea that they could be used to remove overpaint from an original paint layer without damaging the original artwork had never been explored.

In her investigation, Ms Evans looked at how dibasic esters act on paint layers. This involved devising and testing a range of formulations from materials that Australian conservators would have ready access to.

The result was a paint-removal system that can gently remove top layers of paint to reveal the original workings underneath. Two layers of house paint on the walls of Mandeville Hall at Loreto Girls School in Toorak have already been removed using the technique to reveal an 1870s mural of lush green foliage and vegetation bordered with red drapes and golden architecture.

“Conservation is such an exciting blend of science and art. In this project I was able to apply chemical principles to a real-life problem, with such a visually beautiful result at the end of it all,” she says.

For more information on paint, click here.

August 23rd, 2004

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