Painting with gumtion: Accelerating art

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  • Published: Jan 15, 2017
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: NMR Knowledge Base
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Hybrid paints

World famous 19th Century artist JWM Turner used gumption to make his paintings fluid and dynamic. It wasn't simply that he was a dab hand with the brush, he literally used a mixture called gumtion comprising mastic resin with a lead acetate additive to make his oils flow more smoothly across the canvas a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy study shows.

World famous 19th Century artist JWM Turner used gumtion to make his paintings dynamic. It wasn't simply that he was a dab hand with the brush, he literally used a mixture called gumtion comprising mastic resin with a lead acetate additive to make his oils flow more smoothly across the canvas a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), Fourier transform infrared (FTIR), electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy study combined with transmission electron micrshows.

The ideal oil paint medium was for Turner a complex hybrid organic-inorganic gel. His fluid and loose brushwork with which he so evocatively captured the momentary play of light on a foggy Thames or in imagine Biblical scenes was made possible technically with either "gumtion" or "megilp" added to the oil paint matrix. The material endowed the viscous oil paints with a more jelly-like consistency that could be exploited in the impasto-rich paintwork of Turner and his contemporaties. Experiments detailed in the journal Angewandte Chemie, reveal the crucial role lead acetate played in the gelation process.

Muse amusement

Artists' oil paints are usually made from pigments mixed in with an oil and resin. One of the perennial problems for the classical painter was the long drying times of these oil paints. Indeed, layers of colour applied with the standard materials might take months or even years before they completely dry out and their volatile content is dissipated, avoiding smudging and distortion as a painting is built up might have taken months by which time an artist's patron may well have moved on to the next trendy brush bearer. Indeed until the time of J.M.W. Turner's trendsetting painting "The Dawn of Christianity" from 1841 patrons might expect their artists to take a long time to complete a commissioned work by which time an artist may well have lost sight of their muse.

Turner was able to paint The Dawn of Christianity in a matter of days because of the addition of a new and innovative paint matrix: "gumtion" containing lead acetate mixed into linseed oil and mastic resin. The viscoelastic properties of this gel allowed subsequent paint layers to be adding much sooner than ever before in oil paintings. This innovation was thus embraced heartily by the pioneers of modern styles in the 19th century.

Taking the lead in art

Understanding exactly why this oil paint additive works has remained unclear until now. A detailed description of the gel formation process chemistry has recently been offered by Laurence de Viguerie from Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris and CNRS and her colleagues at the Collège de France, and others. The researchers used the original recipes for gumtion and investigated gelation of lead acetate mixed into linseed oil or nut oil, and mastic resin dissolved in turpentine. "Today such syntheses can be described as processes that form organic-inorganic hybrid materials which are known for their wide range of applications", the de Viguerie and her colleagues explain. In combination with ancient lake pigments such as madder lake oil paint, the formed gels attain strong elastic properties enabling the artists to paint fast and with thick impasto, the team reports.

Using NMR spectroscopy and other techniques allowed the team to identify an oxidative free radical mechanism that leads to gelation. Indeed, this mechanism is rather similar to the one responsible for the drying and ageing processes in resins and oils but the presence of a transition metal, or lead in this instance, accelerates the network-forming processes. The team also found that the lead not only catalyzes the formation of a gel network but it also becomes a part of the gel architecture itself, resulting in a typical inorganic-organic hybrid metallogel. Chemistry at work in art once again.

"There is a PhD on this topic starting now," de Viguerie told SpectroscopyNOW. "We want to go further in the understanding of the chemistry of these hybrid gels. The challenge is to determine how the lead binds with the resin. Further, we want to study gel - paint system, understand the chemistry to get a better view of conservation conditions of such mixtures." She points out that some 19th century paintings are suffering dramatic conservation issues, such as alligatoring defects, drying cracks, and other problems.

Related Links

Angew Chem Int Edn Engl 2017, online: "A 19th Century “Ideal” Oil Paint Medium: A Complex Hybrid Organic–Inorganic Gel"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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