Picasso under the microscope—conference gives kids a closer look at art on the nanoscale

Scientists at the Argonne  National Laboratory examined Pablo Picasso's "Still Life with Three Fish, Moray Eel and Lime on White Ground" with X-rays to make a chemical fingerprint of the artist's works.
Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory examined Pablo Picasso’s “Still Life with Three Fish, Moray Eel and Lime on White Ground” with X-rays to make a chemical fingerprint of the artist’s works.

CHICAGO—Upstairs in the Hyatt Regency, researchers unveiled their latest findings to thousands of scientists from all over the world. Downstairs, the audience was, well—smaller.

The Family Science Days program, part of the AAAS conference this weekend, let children to meet real scientists and hear about their research on a smaller scale still—nano-scale.

Physicist Volker Rose told the kids that a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and spread his arms meter-wide. Then he held up a racquetball and explained that a nanometer compared to the whole world, is only the size of that small, blue ball.

Argonne National Laboratory, where Rose works, used the lab’s Advanced Photon Source like a ginormous microscope that can see these teeny tiny particles. Recently, Argonne has turned its giant eye to art.

The APS is actually an accelerator producing high-brilliance X-rays. Rose explained that, if you analyze the light, you can tell what something is made of.

“If we look at the pigments and impurities inside of the pigments, we can make a chemical fingerprint of Picasso’s paint.” he said.

He flashed up a slide with X-ray readings of Zinc and Iron that looked strangely similar to the famous artist’s work.

As it turns out, Picasso was painting on the cheap.

In 2012, Argonne inspected 1 mm samples from Picasso’s paintings and confirmed that he used a normal, white, house paint for his masterpieces. After comparing the samples to other paintings of the same time period (purchased from eBay), the lab concluded that Picasso painted with Ripolin, a French house paint common around the early 1900’s.

Why Picasso chose cheap paint is uncertain, but Rose said his guess is that – if you get famous enough – you have to paint fast. Picasso produced thousands of paintings over his lifetime, so scientists and art historians hypothesize he used house paint because it dries in a few hours, much faster than other art paints.

So save that finger painting on your fridge that’s smudged with simple craft paint—your kid could be the next Picasso.