An Outdated Grasp’s secret ingredient? Egg yolk, new research suggests

Trisha D.
9 Min Read


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“Outdated Masters” equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Rembrandt could have used proteins, particularly egg yolk, of their oil work, in keeping with a brand new research.

Hint portions of protein residue have lengthy been detected in basic oil work, although they have been typically ascribed to contamination. A new research revealed Tuesday within the journal Nature Communications discovered the inclusion was probably intentional — and sheds gentle on the technical data of the Outdated Masters, probably the most expert European painters of the sixteenth, seventeenth, or early 18th century, and the way in which they ready their paints.

“There are only a few written sources about this and no scientific work has been finished earlier than to analyze the topic in such depth,” stated research writer Ophélie Ranquet of the Institute of Mechanical Course of Engineering and Mechanics on the Karlsruhe Institute of Expertise in Germany, in a cellphone interview. “Our outcomes present that even with a really small quantity of egg yolk, you possibly can obtain an incredible change of properties within the oil paint, demonstrating the way it may need been useful for the artists.”

Merely including some egg yolk to their works, it seems, might have long-lasting results that went past simply aesthetics.

In contrast with the medium formulated by historical Egyptians known as tempera — which mixes egg yolk with powdered pigments and water — oil paint creates extra intense colours, permits for very easy shade transitions and dries far much less shortly, so it may be used for a number of days after its preparation. Nonetheless, oil paint, which makes use of linseed or safflower oil as a substitute of water, additionally has drawbacks, together with being extra prone to paint darkening and injury attributable to publicity to gentle.

As a result of making paint was an artisanal and experimental course of, it’s doable that the Outdated Masters may need added egg yolk, a well-recognized ingredient, to the newer sort of paint, which first confirmed up within the seventh century in Central Asia earlier than spreading to Northern Europe within the Center Ages and Italy through the Renaissance. Within the research, the researchers recreated the method of paint-making by utilizing 4 components — egg yolk, distilled water, linseed oil and pigment — to combine two traditionally common and important colours, lead white and ultramarine blue.

“The addition of egg yolk is helpful as a result of it could actually tune the properties of those paints in a drastic approach,” Ranquet stated, “For instance by exhibiting growing old otherwise: It takes an extended time for the paint to oxidize, due to the antioxidants contained within the yolk.”

The chemical reactions between the oil, the pigment and the proteins within the yolk straight have an effect on the paint’s conduct and viscosity. “For instance, the lead white pigment is kind of delicate to humidity, however in the event you coat it with a protein layer, it makes it much more proof against it, making the paint fairly straightforward to use,” Ranquet stated.

“Alternatively, in the event you wished one thing stiffer with out having so as to add numerous pigment, with a little bit of egg yolk you possibly can create a excessive impasto paint,” she added, referring to a portray approach the place the paint is specified by a stroke thick sufficient that the brushstrokes are nonetheless seen. Utilizing much less pigment would have been fascinating centuries in the past, when sure pigments — equivalent to lapis lazuli, which was used to make ultramarine blue — have been costlier than gold, in keeping with Ranquet.

A direct proof of the impact of egg yolk in oil paint, or lack thereof, may be seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna of the Carnation,” one of many work noticed through the research. At present on show on the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany, the work exhibits evident wrinkling on the face of Mary and the kid.

“Oil paint begins to dry from the floor down, which is why it wrinkles,” Ranquet stated.

One purpose for wrinkling could also be an inadequate amount of pigments within the paint, and the research has proven that this impact could possibly be averted with the addition of egg yolk: “That’s fairly superb as a result of you’ve gotten the same amount of pigment in your paint, however the presence of the egg yolk adjustments all the things.”

As a result of wrinkling happens inside days, it’s probably that Leonardo and different Outdated Masters may need caught onto this explicit impact, in addition to extra useful properties of egg yolk in oil paint, together with resistance to humidity. The “Madonna of Carnation” is considered one of Leonardo’s earliest work, created at a time when he may need been nonetheless attempting to grasp the then newly common medium of oil paint.

One other portray noticed through the research was “The Lamentation Over the Lifeless Christ,” by Botticelli, additionally on show on the Alte Pinakothek. The work is generally made with tempera, however oil paint has been used for the background and a few secondary parts.

“We knew that some components of the work present brushstrokes which might be typical for what we name an oil portray, and but we detected the presence of proteins,” Ranquet stated. “As a result of it’s a really small amount and they’re tough to detect, this is perhaps dismissed as contamination: In workshops, artists used many various issues, and possibly the eggs have been simply from the tempera.”

Nonetheless, as a result of including egg yolk had such fascinating results on oil paint, the presence of proteins within the work is perhaps a sign of deliberate use as a substitute, the research urged. Ranquet hopes that these preliminary findings would possibly appeal to extra curiosity towards this understudied matter.

Maria Perla Colombini, a professor of analytical chemistry on the College of Pisa in Italy, who was not concerned within the research, agreed. “This thrilling paper offers a brand new state of affairs for the understanding of previous portray strategies,” she stated in an e-mail.

“The analysis group, reporting outcomes from molecular degree as much as a macroscopic scale, contributes to a brand new data in using egg yolk and oil binders. They don’t seem to be extra taking a look at merely figuring out the supplies utilized by Outdated Masters however clarify how they might produce great and glittering results by using and mixing the few out there pure supplies. They attempt to uncover the secrets and techniques of previous recipes of which little or nothing is written,” she added.

“This new data contributes not solely to a greater conservation and preservation of artworks but additionally to a greater comprehension of artwork historical past.”


Prime picture: The “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo Da Vinci

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