French artist Paul Gauguin is well known for his colourful paintings of Tahitian life - such as the painting that sold recently for nearly $300 million - but he also was a highly experimental printmaker. Little is known, however, about the techniques and materials Gauguin used to create his unusual and complex graphic works. Now a team of scientists and art conservators from Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago has used a simple light bulb, an SLR camera and computational power to uncover new details of Gauguin's printmaking process - how he formed, layered and re-used imagery to make 19 unique graphic works in the Art Institute's collection. The new results establish Gauguin's use of materials and process in a chronological order, solving the puzzle of how ‘Nativity’ was made. Gauguin created the print using a layering of images created on paper by drawings, transfer of images and two different inks. The surface topography research on ‘Nativity’ and other graphic works by the artist will be part of a major Gauguin exhibit at the Art Institute in 2017.
The ‘Nativity’ findings overturn an earlier theory as to how Gauguin might have produced the print. Researchers reproduced in an Art Institute lab, what they believed to be Gauguin's process. The printmaking process the research team had identified produced a print very similar to Gauguin's original. To measure the 3D surface of the prints, they used some very accessible techniques that can be used by art conservators and historians around the world to analyze artworks. In applying these techniques to Gauguin's work, they came up with some interesting answers to questions about what his printing process was. Researchers studied ‘Nativity’ and 18 other Gauguin mono-prints in the Art Institute's collection. They used multiple wavelengths of light shining from different directions onto the prints to investigate the surface of the paper and re-evaluate how Gauguin created his works. The photometric stereo technique allowed the researchers to mathematically separate colour from surface shape, providing a much clearer view of the paper's topography.