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Painting on copper: The preparatory layer

Daniel Vega1*, Isabel Pombo Cardoso1,2, Leslie Carlyle1,2

Corresponding author:
1 Department of Conservation and Restoration, Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Caparica, Portugal; 2 REQUIMTE-CQFB, Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia,
Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Caparica, Portugal

Paintings on copper became popular during the 16th and 17th centuries when many artists adopted this rigid, non-absorbent support for oil
painting [1,2,3]. Discovering how these paintings were executed presents a double challenge since the historical documentation is both limited
and dispersed. This research, which looks at the characterization of copper paintings, aims to combine literature references with analysis from
actual paintings. Twelve European paintings originating in Portugal, Flanders, Spain and Italy, on metal (eleven on copper and one on brass)
were chosen for study. The paintings date from the 17th and 18th centuries, therefore information from the artists’ manuals and treatises
(covering six different languages) focuses on this period. Analyses of the paintings were carried out with non-invasive and micro-invasive
techniques, including stereomicroscopy, X-radiography, µ-Energy Dispersive X-ray Fluorescence spectroscopy (μ-EDXRF), μ-
Raman spectroscopy (μ-Raman) and Optical Microscopy (OM).
This poster focuses on the results related to the preparatory layers, chosen for investigation primarily because they can be
difficult to detect visually and with the stereomicroscope, as evidenced in the study group of paintings (Fig. 1). For the
preparatory layers only three of the analytical techniques revealed meaningful results (see below).


Table of sources consulted 1. Stereomicroscope

No ground layer was visible where paint is lost since both
Country Date Source Support pages ground and paint have detached. Areas of loss reveal that the
pgmt app col surface of the copper plates was likely sanded before painting
1676 Félibien, A.[A] X p. 410 (Fig. 1). This was suggested by different authors (C, D, F, Q, R, cf.
1679 De la Fontaine, J.[B] X X X pp. 28-29 table), for example De la Hire (1730) states on page 474 that the
1730 De la Hire, P. [C] X X X p. 474
copper plates, should be:
1756 Pernety , A. [D] X X n/p - ch. IXXXIX …dressed & pumiced… (…dressées & poncée…)
1759 Anonymous [E] X p. 125, 126, 131
1766 De Piles, R. [F] X X X p. 135-138 2. Optical microscopy
1779 Dutens, M. [G] X X p. 62 A thin and even preparatory layer was found on all paintings
1779 Le Pileur D'Apligny[H] X p. 72 (Figs. 2,3). It appears in OM images to be a single layer however,
1649 Pacheco, F. [I] X X X p. 385 since multiple applications of the same material do not
ES necessarily show a layer structure a single application cannot be
c.1656 Anonymous [J] X f. 177
1724 Palomino, A. [K] X X X pp. 30, 33-34
1735 Barrow, J. [L] X X p. 186 3. µ-Raman
UK 1758 Dossie, R. [M] X X pp. 201, 204-5
The main pigments identified in preparation layers from the
1773 Watin, J-F. [N] X p. 88 paintings are lead white (2PbCO3.Pb(OH)2) (Fig. 4) and a carbon
IT 1772 Grisellini, F. [O] X p. 270 based black. Other materials identified were red lead (Pb3CO4),
c.1704 Eikelenberg, S. [P] X p. 200 vermilion (HgS), calcium carbonate (CaCO3) and iron oxides:
1777 Anonymous [Q] X X p. 171 probably haematite (α-Fe2O3) or goethite (α-FeOOH). Written
DE 1761 Halle, J. [R] X p. 322 sources specify most of these materials, for example on page
385 Pacheco (1649) states:
pgmnt: specific pigments mentioned; app: application technique; col: general hue given but no
specific pigments recommended. The plates are prepared with lead white, and umber in oil…
(Las laminas se empriman con Alvayalde, I sombra a Olio…)

Fig.1 - PNT-FL-5 Fig.2 - PNT-PT-4 Fig.3 - PNT-ES-1 Fig.4 - PNT-PT-2

detail of a loss with the stereomicroscope cross-section showing preparatory cross-section showing preparatory Lead pigment bands identified
showing scratch lines (x50) layers and paint layers and paint

In the paintings studied, a thin (10-20 µm) preparatory layer ranging from light brown to white was consistently found between the copper
support and paint layers, despite the poor visibility of this layer by observation and stereomicroscopy. Its presence and the materials used
were anticipated by consulting artists’ manuals and treatises contemporary with the period studied, and were confirmed with analysis.
[1] Van Der Graaf, J.A. 1972. Development of oil paint and the use of metal plates as a support. In Conservation of paintings and the
graphic arts: preprints of contributions to the Lisbon Congress, 9-14 October 1972. London: IIC, pp.139-152.
[2] Bowron, E.P. 1999. A brief history of European oil paintings on copper, 1560-1775. In M. Komanecky, ed. Copper as Canvas: Two
Centuries of Masterpiece Painting on Copper, 1575-1775. New York & Oxford: Phoenix Art Museum, Oxford University Press, pp. 9-44.
[3] Horovitz, I. 2012. Copper as a support for easel paintings. In J. Hill Stoner & R. Rushfield, eds. The Conservation of Easel Paintings.
London: Butterworths-Elsevier, pp. 99-106