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New infrared camera to support IU Art Museum conservation, research, teaching efforts

Aug. 6, 2015

The unassuming black plastic box sits atop a tripod in the comfortably cluttered conservation lab tucked deep in the heart of the IU Art Museum on the Bloomington campus.

Though it might look simple on the outside, the $60,000 high-tech infrared camera is the newest piece of equipment in the museum’s conservation and research arsenal.

osiris camera

From left, IU Art Museum conservator Margaret Contompasis and conservation assistant Ellen Lyon adjust the museum's new infrared camera. | PHOTO BY KEVIN MONTAGUE, IU ART MUSEUM

Purchased with a grant from the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation, the camera “sees” things in the infrared spectrum that aren’t visible to the naked eye. That’s particularly useful for art, where its rays can penetrate layers of oil paint, for example, exposing writing or the pencil marks an artist might have made to ensure he or she got the tricky folds of a cloak right or to keep a building’s lines true to the painting’s imaginary horizon.

Margaret Contompasis, the Beverly and Gayl W. Doster Conservator of Paintings at the IU Art Museum, and conservation assistant Ellen Lyon demonstrated the camera to a visitor recently, first flipping on bright lights to illuminate a painting. After consulting two mathematical charts to aim the camera – it doesn’t have a viewfinder, so setting it up requires some calculations based on a painting’s dimensions – a nearby computer screen began to fill line by line with the infrared image of the painting. That allowed the painting’s “underdrawing” to become visible, exposing the sketch of a tree top that was initially higher than where the artist actually painted it.

While using the camera with bright lights can heat up a painting somewhat, it’s considered far less damaging than other options for doing similar research, which can require taking samples from the actual work of art. It’s also a less time-consuming way to track damage and the effects of natural aging; previously, museum conservators tracked such damage by hand, marking cracks on a paper copy of a painting.

“We’ve already put the Osiris camera to good use,” Contompasis said. “For example, one of our paintings is going out to be part of an exhibition at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and they asked if we could send it to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for a scan for a publication they’re publishing for the exhibition. And I was able to say, ‘Oh, we can do it here now.’ They were thrilled.”

osiris camera

Contompasis and Lyon study an image created by the IU Art Museum's new infrared camera. | PHOTO BY KEVIN MONTAGUE, IU ART MUSEUM

In addition, Tavy Aherne, the museum’s senior academic officer, has requested a scan of a painting she’ll use while teaching this fall. It is also a piece of cutting-edge equipment that conservation interns will be able to gain experience using, something Contompasis said can give a leg up to those who move on into the extremely competitive realm of fine arts conservation graduate programs.

“It’s a wonderful tool to be able to expose our students to here,” she said. "Having this equipment in combination with our new micro-chemical laboratory broadens their knowledge of the scientific component of fine art conservation and gives them some hands-on experience with the equipment. We’ll also be able to work with other entities across campus, including the Lilly Library and the Mathers Museum, who can benefit from the camera.”

Contompasis said she’s also excited to use the Osiris camera to continue a research project she began years ago with former curator Kathleen Foster, who is now with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to examine the IU Art Museum’s collection of 29 oil works by Thomas Chambers, a mid-19th-century marine and landscape painter hailed as America’s first modern artist.

The paintings came to the museum as part of Morton Bradley Jr.’s estate, and comprise a large portion of the museum’s American paintings collection.

The new camera aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a commitment to student success and catalyzing research.

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