Few would argue that oil paint has been the most important type of paint over the last 500 years. The use of oil as the film-forming component of paint—the binding medium—was well established by the start of the fifteenth century, and for many artists oil paints still remain the preferred choice today. However, throughout the twentieth century a wide and varied range of synthetic polymers have been developed, many of which have been used as binding media in modern paints. The introduction of these synthetic binders, most notably acrylic, alkyd, and polyvinyl acetate, has undoubtedly enabled great advances to be made in paint technology, in terms of reduced yellowing, greater flexibility, faster drying times, and in the case of emulsion formulations, the elimination of organic solvents as thinners and diluents. Many artists have utilized these modern paint types, including those that were never intended specifically for artists’ use, and have explored and exploited their distinct handling and optical properties. Establishing the constituents of paint is frequently necessary prior to any kind of conservation treatment and for developing long-term preventive conservation strategies, as well as for technical art historical studies and issues surrounding authenticity. The identification of binding media is particularly important, as this component appears to have the largest influence on many of the properties of the resulting dried paint film. Although noninvasive/nondestructive techniques would clearly be favorable, at present the most useful analysis is obtained from high-sensitivity techniques that require the removal of submilligram paint samples. Two analytical techniques—pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (PyGCMS) and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR)—are now routinely used at Tate to identify and characterize modern paints from works of art. This paper will summarize the three principal classes of synthetic binder and how PyGCMS and FTIR have been utilized to analyze them.
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