In order to develop a better understanding at the molecular level of water sensitivity in twentieth century oil paintings, water sensitive Winsor & Newton oil paint swatches and twentieth century oil paintings were characterised using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) and direct injection electrospray ionisation mass spectrometry (ESI-MS), and the data were analysed using principal component analysis. Liquid chromatography coupled with tandem mass spectrometry based on quadrupole and time of flight mass detectors and electrospray interface (HPLC-ESI-Q-ToF) was also used to obtain a better insight into the molecular composition of a selection of samples. The study highlights a strong relationship between the molecular composition of the binding medium and the type of pigment present in the paint, which relates to water sensitivity. Consistently non-water sensitive lead white, titanium white, and zinc white paints [all containing zinc oxide] contained a relatively low proportion of extractable diacids, and a relatively high proportion of extractable short chain monoacids. These paints also contained a relatively low level of unsaturated and hydroxylated glycerides. Water sensitive iron oxide and ultramarine paints are associated with both a relatively high degree of oxidation and a high proportion of extractable diacids, as well as a relatively high content of unsaturated and hydroxylated glycerides. Water sensitive cadmium red, yellow and orange paints were generally not highly oxidised, but they also contained a relatively high content of unsaturated and hydroxylated glycerides. It is hypothesised that water sensitivity relates to a low degree of saponification and crosslinking and possibly, on the relative content of dicarboxylic acids.
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