The Secret Life of Art.


That’s a tiny bit of a wooden altar, revealing the layers, types, and colours of paint used. Art restoration is a fascinating business, and there’s art under the art, in the science of restoration.

Stratigraphic studies is one of the standard examination methods that provides very precise information about the complexity of paint layers that make up a painting or decorative finish. It is the key method to assess the extent and condition of different painting layers. Stratigraphic studies can reveal the way the paint layers are applied and consequently, they tell us how the artist worked. Tiny samples of paint are taken from discrete and representative areas and mounted in clear resin. Such prepared samples are observed under a binocular microscope at high magnification between 50x and 200x depending on the thickness of the examined layer.

Thorough observation of the various layers enables the conservator to determine the history of the object and whether interventions have occurred by inspecting layers of dirt, varnish and paint. Additionally the media analysis can be carried out on the cross-sections which provide important information about an artist’s technique, and helps to determine the most appropriate conservation treatments to use.  A technique of staining of cross-sections can detect the presence of certain materials in the various painting layers such as lipids (suggesting an oil-containing medium), or proteins (signifying a gum-, casein- or animal glue-based medium).

The information revealed using the stratigraphic analysis can be recorded using microphotography and then compared with UV, IR and X-ray examination, consequently providing reliable information on the object’s history and artist’s technique.

Then there are the amazing microphotographs of wood. This is a bit of Norway Fir:


When identifying wood, it may only be necessary to determine if the wood is a hardwood or a softwood. In other cases, determining the individual species is necessary. Thin sections are prepared from small wood samples. Light microscopy is employed to distinguish anatomical characteristics of wood using features such as their cells and tissues visible only under high magnification. Technical literature and the collection of samples of numerous wood species are used during the identification.

Go have a wander over to visit Damian Lizun at Fine Art Conservation!


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    A wealth of information in the site linked.

    It’s been a while since I took fiber microscopy, but the in the second microscope photo, I think, you can see wood rays (dyed) and spring (large, thin-walled tracheid cells) and summer wood (with smaller but thicker-walled tracheids). Tracheids are the cells that transport water from the roots in softwoods, just like the vessel elements do in hardwoods (those big round things in the transverse microscopy photos of hardwoods).

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