The surfaces of acrylic emulsion (dispersion) paint films were investigated by atomic force microscopy (AFM), with supporting chemical information provided via infrared spectroscopy. The morphological and chemical features of the surfaces of a series of recently cast reference paint films were explored, including characterization of changes induced by exposure to water and mineral spirits. A portable in situ AFM system was also used to document the surfaces of acrylic emulsion paintings in Tate's collection. The complete and partial removal of migrated surfactant was successfully imaged alongside features arising from mechanical action. Differences in paint surfaces and migrated surfactant layers were observed in relation to pigment type, paint brand and exposure to accelerated ageing, in addition to applied wet surface cleaning treatments. The findings contribute to further understanding of the subtle changes occurring at acrylic emulsion paint film surfaces and are relevant to current debates on the removal/disturbance of original surface surfactant from these films through conservation treatment.
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