A Study of Historic Pigments

Hello Everyone!

My name is Hannah Mayhew and I am a rising junior pursuing a chemistry major and an art history minor at the College of William and Mary.  I have been given the incredible opportunity of engaging in summer research in the Chemistry Department through the aid of a Chappell Fellowship and will be spending the next few months working under Professor Wustholz in her lab.  My goal for the summer is to apply surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) to samples from colonial oil paintings as an analytical technique to identify the presence of yellow lake dyes and other organic colorants.  I feel incredibly fortunate to have discovered Professor Wustholz’s research project, as I have always found the field of art conservation particularly fascinating.  This project allows me to advance my involvement in the field of analytical chemistry while working directly with pieces of art.

Due to collaboration with Shelley Svoboda and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Paintings Conservation Department, we have been able to apply the SERS technique to samples from their collections in an attempt to advance the preservation and exhibition of these pieces.  A thorough understanding of the composition of paint in an artwork provides the conservator with valuable information for cleaning, conserving, and properly displaying works of art.  SERS represents a significant advancement in this field, as it allows for the precise identification of organic colorants with a comparatively tiny sample size.  Other traditional analytical methods either require a larger sample or cannot reliably be applied to organic materials due to the fluorescent nature of such pigments.

Lake pigments, notorious for fading under light, provide challenges for our method.  A thorough SERS analysis of yellow lake dyes has never been conducted, as this method is fairly new to the field and yellow colorants are difficult to identify due to their abundance in nature.  I hope to tackle the challenge of compiling a thorough study of such yellow colorants and manipulating the SERS method to obtain the clearest possible data from yellow paint samples.  I can’t wait to get started and I look forward to sharing my challenges and progress with you all!