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Laser uncovers art without damaging it

Duke University prof exposes mysteries underneath layers of paint


 DURHAM, N.C. — A Duke University professor who developed a laser to study melanoma has discovered a new use for the system: uncovering what’s underneath artwork without damaging the pieces in any way.

Dr. Warren S. Warren was at the National Gallery in London, looking at an exhibit on art forgeries, when he realized that the art world used imaging technologies that were 30 or 40 years old. So he began investigating whether lasers could be used to uncover the mysteries underneath layers of paint without damaging the art.

Warren and others in Duke’s Center for Molecular and Biomedical Imaging, which he heads, have discovered they can use Warren’s pump-probe laser to create three-dimensional cross-sections of art that let researchers see colours and layers and maybe, at some point, discover the source of materials.

The museum is contributing about $12,500 a year in grant funds to research its paintings, while the school received a three-year grant of about $700,000 from the National Science Foundation to investigate the laser’s use for both cancer and art research.

Warren’s lab will use part of its grant to develop a portable version of the pump-probe so it can go to the paintings, rather than the other way around, and so it can be used to examine larger works of art.

The research matters well beyond telling visitors that another face lies under the one they see now or that the red glaze and lapis paint were mixed, rather than layered, Brown said.