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New technology reveals the rough sketches under da Vinci’s masterpieces

J-P Mauro - published on 02/06/20

The technique could provide insight into the creative methods of the world's most famous artists.

Before a painter can begin mixing their pigments, they first make a rough sketch on the canvas to help them envision the art to come. This was as true 500 years ago as it is today, unless you’re Bob Ross, and for centuries art historians have longed to see what the great Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches might have looked like. Thanks to some new technology and the dedicated work of experts, however, now we have caught a glimpse at the beginnings of a masterpiece.

The technology, developed through a joint effort by scholars at Imperial College London and the National Gallery, combines x-ray scanning with a new algorithm that analyzes the chemical make-up of the artistic materials. CNet explains that da Vinci, in particular, used paints accented with raw elements, like zinc.

Experts analyze every pixel of a painting in order to identify these elements, and then they subject their results to the complex algorithm that makes sense of it all. In the end, we are left with a view of the initial vision of the project.

The subject of their first test of the process was da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks,” a 1483 masterpiece. In the report from Imperial College London featured above, we are treated to an incredibly rare view of the pen strokes underneath the painting. Strikingly, while the figures that appear in the final piece are present, the underlying sketch shows them in slightly different positions, suggesting that the artist changed his vision at some point during the work’s creation.

Imperial College London’s Pier Luigi Dragotti, who worked on the technological aspects of the project, said in the release:

“Each pixel contained different amounts of each element, within various layers. We analyzed each pixel individually before combining them to see all the underdrawings in the painting. This revealed a much sharper image of the angel and baby.”

The team was thrilled with their results, but they are even more excited to bring their new technology to other famous works. The results could provide art students with invaluable data as to the creative processes of the worlds most renowned visual artists.

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