Innovating Materials Science for Art’s Sake

Launched in Spring 2016, Dr. Marc Walton’s course on the “Materiality of Art and Archaeology” brought together an interdisciplinary group of students in both Art History and Materials Science to work with and assess objects in the Block Museum collection. Dr. Walton, Senior Scientist of the Center for Scientific Studies and the Arts (a joint project between the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern), created the course to afford his students the chance to “address the role of scientific examination in investigating the production and use of art across time and space.”

The interdisciplinary nature of the topic offers McCormick students the opportunity to work closely with Weinberg students and vice versa. Collaborations like these that span disparate concentrations set the stage for new areas of study to develop. Says Dr. Walton, “It’s a project-based class where the students invest themselves in understanding how art and artifacts are created, a burgeoning field called ‘Technical Art History,’ where science, technology, and art merge.” 

Venice Woman

In the first offering of the course, one of the student groups analyzed a sculpture which was a direct, unauthorized cast of Alberto Giacometti’s Venice Woman IX (c.1980) for its final project. Combining the scientific method with a knowledge of the materials and techniques of the time, the group was able to shed light on what kind of technique was used to fabricate it.

The students determined that the Block Museum’s sculpture was likely made by using one of Giacometti’s original casts as a template – an interesting find. In addition to the external evaluation, the students also analyzed the composition of the piece and found that the elements used in the Block Collection’s sculpture significantly differed from those known to be found in Giacometti’s foundry, thus confirming it was likely not an original. 

Recent Discovery

In the most recent offering of the course, one of the student groups made a breakthrough that will not only influence future iterations of the class, but also has broad implications for the art conservation world at large.

With the guidance of Dr. Walton, Northwestern graduate students Nathan Bradshaw, Jennifer DiStefano, Danielle Duggins, Ridvan Kahraman, and Utthara Rameshbabu have created the beginnings of a method that utilizes computational imaging to measure the surface shape of paintings in 3D. Their new approach will enable the matching of textures of paint, thereby helping researchers understand how paint is lost to repair over the years. For art conservators, this is a big deal because matching paint textures is very difficult to achieve.

To explain their work, the students said, “Methods exist to repair damaged paintings, such as restoration by a trained conservator; however, these processes are unable to consistently and accurately recreate textured patterns across wide scales at millimeter resolutions. We explore the possibility of using photometric stereo measurements and predictive software to determine the topography of missing areas of a painting and create infills of the missing area via three-dimensional (3D) printing.

“The methods presented here successfully predict the topography of the surface of missing sections of paintings and allow us to print a proof of concept version of the surface topography predicted. While these methods require refinement before this technique can be applied to a historical painting, the ability to predict the missing topography creates a new avenue for repairing damaged paintings.”*

Pretty impressive, huh?

3D Texture Mapping

So, how does the students’ method work?*

First, photometric stereo imaging is used to determine pattern, topography, and color profiles of a painting.

3D Texture Mapping

Then, post-processing methods are used to estimate the features in the missing or damaged area.

3D Texture Mapping

Finally, a 3D-printed infill is made which takes into consideration the pattern, topography, and color profiles of the area of the painting surrounding the damaged area that can be applied to restore the original.  

3D Texture Mapping

*Description and images were taken from the students’ final written report. Used with permission.

The Work Continues  

The students in Dr. Walton’s Fall 2016 Materiality of Art and Archeology course plan to apply for the grant funding to continue their work outside of the class. So far, their infill method serves as a compelling proof of concept. However, issues with the resolution of the 3D printed infills will need to be addressed first. With the implications of their establishing a new method for art conservation, it’s hard to imagine they won’t find funding to continue their work.

“The main point of this class is to explore how the materiality of art can augment art historical inquiry and, vice versa, how art historical inquiry can push new boundaries in engineering by leveraging the complexity inherent to the humanities. By doing this we can imagine an ecosystem at Northwestern where such interdisciplinary research opportunities spark new ways of thinking at the interface of the arts and sciences,” said Dr. Walton.  

This fall, Dr. Walton will be co-teaching a class with Taco Terpstra in the Classics Department surrounding the materials analysis of Roman-era mummy portraits. The content produced in the class will be used in a Block Museum exhibit about Tebtunis Egypt slated for the Winter Quarter 2018. Students will get to be curators of the show!

Interested in taking a future offering? You can find it by searching “ART_HIST 390-0-2” in CAESAR.

For more on Dr. Walton and the Materiality of Art and Archaeology, check out the video below from the Block Museum:

'Materiality in Art' at the Block