Methods: Vermeer and technique

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Microscopy

Microscopic examination of paint cross-sections

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A paint cross-section taken from the ceiling beam in 'The Music Lesson', photographed with visible light at 200x magnification.

By examining minute samples of paint in cross-section under the microscope, the layer structure of a painting can be determined for that sample point. The ground layers are usually included in the sample. Many pigments can be identified by their optical properties in cross-sections, and analysis by scanning electron microscope with energy-dispersive X-ray (SEM-EDX) can be carried out on individual pigment particles and paint layers. Samples are mounted in blocks of cold-setting resin, then ground and polished to reveal the edge of the sample for examination in reflected (incident) light under the optical microscope. The usual magnification range is 60–1000X.

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Helen Howard, Microscopist, examining a paint cross-section from 'The Music Lesson' using a Leica DM 4000M microscope.

 

UV fluorescence microscopy

Some materials used in paintings fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet radiation, that is they emit visible light of a specific wavelength (and therefore colour) when excited by the high energy ultraviolet. A light microscope is used to study properties of organic or inorganic substances using the phenomena of fluorescence in addition to reflection and absorption. When a paint cross-section is illuminated with ultraviolet light, certain materials may exhibit characteristic fluorescence.

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Detail of a paint cross-section taken from the ceiling beam in 'The Music Lesson', photographed with visible light at 500x magnification.
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Detail of a paint cross-section taken from the ceiling beam in 'The Music Lesson', photographed under ultraviolet illumination at 500x magnification.