Finding What Lies Beneath

Before a painter dips his brush, he lays out his plan. With a carbon-black pencil, he sketches the whole work, down to the finest details. And he’s fond of his outline, so he takes sweeping strokes in this direction. Although, upon reaching the foreground, he changes his mind. He decides to pursue a completely different vision. And a few dips of paint later, he changes his mind again. And again, and again. Eventually, he reaches his final brush stroke, the final version of his work. The version you see hanging in the gallery.

And that is what you see – the final brushstrokes. The whole process of the piece, its story, how it came to be, is hidden beneath the surface. The preliminary drawing resting under the paint. The first vision, the second vision, and so on. All of this. All of this is invisible to the he who gazes upon the work centuries later.

So, who will tell this work’s story – the hidden story of this work’s creation?

My name is Katherine Van Kirk, and I will try to tell this story.

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Fellow Katherine Van Kirk taking photos in the infrared

To do this, I need to uncover what is beneath the surface. Below the top layer of paint, I may find completely different works. Or, I may find the initial sketches – known as “underdrawings” – of the final product. Or, I may not find either. Perhaps the painter had a strong grasp of his vision. So strong, in fact, that he could let his hand fly across the canvas without any sort of preliminary outline.

Sometimes, below the paint, there are other works, completely separate from the final painting. And it has happened in works of well-known artists such as Pablo Picasso. The artists, when they reuse wooden panels or canvases, are often attempting to save money. Thus, this is most often seen in their early works, works created when they were not yet well-known.

So, how do we determine what is below the paint? With our naked eye, we cannot see below the top layer. However, if we look at a painting in the infrared, which is beyond the visible spectrum, we can see past the final work. Specifically, this technique is called “reflected infrared digital photography,” and in the Cantor’s Art + Science lab, we have a digital camera that has been modified to capture infrared light…


I’ll get into the details of reflected infrared digital photography and what I’ve found below the surface in a later blog post. Be sure to check it out!

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