Introduction to Analytical Techniques

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Author: Jessica Ford

Editors: Anne Schaffer, Kari Rayner

This chapter seeks to introduce instrumental analytical techniques used in the study of artifacts, specifically in reference to paintings conservation. For a more exhaustive and general list of techniques employed in the fields of conservation science and technical art history, please refer to the Research and Technical Studies Group or publications such as Stuart’s Analytical Techniques in Materials Conservation (2007). The fields of cultural heritage preservation, conservation science, and technical art history are always expanding as new questions arise and as new techniques are developed or adapted from other fields such as biomedicine or manufacturing (Nadolny 2012). It is expected that this list will continue to grow and warrant updates.

The analytical techniques listed here require equipment other than visible light and low magnification, thus they often fall outside of standard examination and documentation practice. The expense of instrumentation for both technical examination (section 2) and instrumental analysis (section 3) varies greatly, as does the level of expertise required to operate the instrumentation and to interpret the resulting data (MacBeth 2012; Townsend and Boon 2012). While some modes of technical examination may be regularly utilized by many conservators, the use of many modes of instrumental analysis is often limited by lack of resources or highly specialized scientific training. In addition, to both supplement and guide scientific knowledge, understanding of the artistic technique and the historical context of a painting are a necessity for reliable interpretation of data (Carlyle 1995; Ainsworth 2005). Some techniques require sampling of original material from an artifact. Samples are generally on a microscopic scale, and sampling should only be performed by a trained professional conservator or conservation scientist after thorough consideration of the benefits of potential knowledge gained versus the cost of removing original material from a painting.

For the best results, the technical or chemical question prompting analysis should be carefully defined in advance in order to select the most appropriate methodology, including determining whether qualitative or quantitative information is sought, and what level of instrumental sensitivity is necessary to discern the pertinent information (Townsend and Boon 2012). Every technique has its own strengths and limitations, and it is the researching conservation professional’s responsibility to be aware of the effects of these limitations in relationship to the material(s) in question.


Ainsworth, M. W. 2005. From connoisseurship to technical art history: the evolution of the interdisciplinary study of art. GCI Newsletter 20 (1): 4–10.

Carlyle, L. A. 1995. Beyond a collection of data: what we can learn from documentary sources on artists’ materials and techniques. In Historical Painting Techniques, Materials, and Studio Practice: Preprints of a Symposium, University of Leiden, the Netherlands, edited by A. Wallert et al., 1–5. Marina Del Rey, California: Getty Conservation Institute.

MacBeth, R. 2012. The technical examination and documentation of easel paintings. In Conservation of Easel Paintings, edited by J. H. Stoner and R. Rushfield, 291–305. Abingdon, Oxon England: Routledge.

Nadolny, J. 2012. A history of early scientific examination and analysis of painting materials ca. 1780 to the mid-twentieth century. In Conservation of Easel Paintings, edited by J. H. Stoner and R. Rushfield, 337–340. Abingdon, Oxon England: Routledge.

Townsend, J., and J. Boon. 2012. Research and instrumental analysis in the materials of easel painting. In Conservation of Easel Paintings, edited by J. H. Stoner and R. Rushfield, 341-365. Abingdon, Oxon England: Routledge.

Continue to Technical Examination.