Principle of Parsimony

Ideally, a scientist would have unlimited amount of sample to experiment and analyze. If test A didn’t work, there would always be more sample for tests B  and C, or however many it takes to get an informative results. In our lab one of the challenges we work around is using very small bits of sample. Taking the smallest amount of a precious painting is essential, meaning we only have very small samples that are few in number. When looking for multiple color components of said samples, it is then necessary to preserve as much sample as possible through the multiple treatments or extractions necessary to find each individual component. The the case of greens, the yellow component requires acid hydrolysis or solvent extraction and the blue component requires an acid extraction. Our goal is to see if these three different techniques will compete or cooperate when used on a single art sample. Of the art sample is smaller than visible to the human eye, then viewers of the painting will not be affected by the small cost of analysis. Some initial test have been done with green mixtures of indigo and gamboge and the results have been promising! I’m very eager to see if the process will work with smaller samples. Hopefully we will also be able to test the process on actual art samples soon! The complex layer systems and ground and varnish often present in paintings represent their own challenges, but those can make success even sweeter (if we are indeed successful)!


  1. Mary, your project is super cool and I think it’s really awesome to see a project that combines what people often see as radially different subjects (like art/art history and chemistry). It’s amazing to see what you guys are able to do with just a very small sample. Was analysis like this possible in the past, or would it have required significant amounts of sample that would have damaged the painting? Are there any ways to identify mixed paints without taking samples of paint?