That’s a Wrap!

It seems like June 1st, the first day of research, was two days ago, not two months. It sometimes feels like I’ve just gotten started, but when I look back through the 100 notebook pages I’ve filled this summer, the spectra, penned notes and messy scribbles argue otherwise. Now looking towards the next year of research, I’m really excited to continue working towards analysis of samples from historically significant paintings. We have some samples stowed away in drawers that I’ll sort through looking for anything described as “blue leaf” or “faded green”. Additionally, it will be fruitful to ask the paintings conservator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation if she has any samples of interest. The biggest adjustment coming into the next year will be having so many things that I want to do and so little time. With a usual course load, it won’t be possible to spend 8 hours a day on the microscope scanning through samples.  Another challenge will be presenting everything done over the summer in a digestible and concise manner. I sometimes get mired down in details and forget the big picture questions. Talking to other members of the group and explaining the basic “Why?” questions of the project has been really helpful. Blogging throughout the summer has also helped! Writing things down and explaining them to the larger audience really reminds me of the intriguing cross over between art and science that initially drew me in. I can’t wait to finish off my college career with a strong year of research.

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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)!

100% Chance of Brainstorm

Performing experiments, obtaining results and having moments of inspiration are the stereotypical themes of research . However, in the day to day, one can’t do that all the time. For starters, constant strokes of genius would be exhausting!  Or, more often, experiments fail or give unexpected results and  you have to take a step back, evaluate where you are, and carefully plan the next steps. This often means hours pouring over Google Scholar articles looking for hints of what has worked elsewhere. A stack of papers flipped open to the experimental sections inevitably creeps over the entirety of your desk along with notes jotted down on scraps of paper towel, the mess relegating the all-important  lab notebook to a chair or lap. If your more organized, the papers will map out regions of subject matter, in my case SERS city being next to Gamboge county, just across the computer keyboard from Raman village. Though it’s necessary to spend time in this paper whirlpool, it’s also important to get out before the eye strain sets in. Luckily, the chemistry departments provides enough creative distraction to balance out the hard work. Liquid nitrogen ice cream is a cool relief on Wednesdays and lab lunch is always a great way to end the week. As it was the Wustholz lab’s turn to make ice cream this past week, we whipped up PB&J, mint mocha and blueberry crumble flavors. Taking breaks like this allows us all to flex our creative muscle and take a fresh look at our projects when we return to them.

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Itsy bitsy, teeny weeny, yellow… sample?


Small gamboge sample

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Mixing It Up

The past weeks of research have been packed with activity. In order to best tailor our experiments to historic paint applications, I began the summer by making green paints according to traditional techniques. In agreement with research from Shelley Svoboda, the paintings conservator at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, we chose to combine of the blue dyes azurite, Prussian blue, and indigo with the yellow dyes gamboge, stil de grain, and reseda lake to make optical greens. The paint making process starts by making small mounds of dye on a roughed glass plate. Drops of linseed oil are added to make a paste. Once satisfied with the color, we added enough oil to create a spreadable consistency. Then a large glass pestle was used to grind together the grains of dye and the oil to create a homogeneous mixture. Grinding each of the nine mixtures for 15 minutes each was definitely an arm work out! It was worth it though: the paints came out gorgeously.

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