In 2003, Dr. Gregory Smith began his tenure as the first Samuel Golden Research Fellow at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The project collaborators – Golden Artist Colors, Inc., the National Gallery of Art, Tate in London, and the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles – were tasked with examining the effects of conservation cleaning treatments on acrylic emulsion paintings. Dr. Smith’s role in the research was to identify specifically the paint additives that were extracted during aqueous cleaning treatments and to characterize the physical changes in the acrylic paints as a result of the loss of these additives.
As the two year fellowship draws to a close, it is astounding how much has been accomplished during this short period. Some of the many significant achievements accomplished by Greg during the course of the work include the assembly of a library of scientific and technical publications relevant to the research; the collection of reference materials and additives which have been characterized for use in further testing; the creation, aging, and treatment of a corpus of simulated paintings to be analyzed in subsequent tests; and the development of analytical methods using thermal, mechanical, spectroscopic, and chromatographic instrumentation. The carry over effects of these advancements within the arts community at large include the increased confidence that individual collectors and institutions will gain in the acquisition and care of acrylic based artworks. The acrylics conservation work being done by Greg and his few predecessors in this area will also impact curatorial academia through the eventual publishing of his and other findings.
Of key importance has been the creation and implementation of an analysis protocol for separating and identifying the many components such as surfactants, biocides, wetting agents, and dispersants that are extracted from acrylic paintings when they are treated with cleaning solvents. The protocol relies on a high pressure liquid chromatograph coupled to a mass spectrometric detector (HPLC-MS). This research has shown that the surfactants used to emulsify the acrylic polymer and to wet the surfaces of pigments are the most labile and abundant materials extracted from the paint. Mechanical and thermal analyses have revealed that the loss of these additives, which are actually vestigial once the paint surface has coalesced and cured, can possibly be beneficial to the painting, leaving it slightly less tacky and perhaps less prone to dirt pickup, fingerprints, and impressions from poor handling or storage. Further assessment of the changes in the tactility of the paints will provide additional information regarding the benefits and concerns of additive losses.
The Samuel Golden fellowship has prepared Dr. Smith for a career in conservation science research. He was recently named the first Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Conservation Science at Buffalo State College’s art conservation program where he will teach materials science and instrumental analysis to graduate students in fine arts and archaeological conservation. Dr. Smith will also establish a research program at the college where he will continue to pursue studies of acrylic emulsion paints and other modern synthetic artists’ materials. The proximity of Buffalo State College to the GOLDEN facilities in New Berlin, NY, will allow continued close collaboration between Greg and the scientists and engineers at Golden Artist Colors, Inc., an enviable partnership in the art conservation field and the artists’ paint industry.