3D surface reveals Gauguin’s printmaking secrets

Above, a portion of "Self-portrait (in the role of 'Les Misérables' protagonist Jean Valjean) with Émile Bernard portrait in the background, for Vincent," 1888. (Credit: Paul Gauguin via Wikimedia Commons)

Using a simple light bulb, an SLR camera, and computer software, researchers have uncovered new details of French artist Paul Gauguin’s printmaking method.

Gauguin is well known for his colorful paintings of Tahitian life—such as the painting that recently sold for nearly $300 million—but little has been known about how he created his unusual and complex graphic works.

The findings show he formed, layered, and re-used imagery to make 19 unique graphic works in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, including “Nativity (Mother and Child Surrounded by Five Figures),” a piece from 1902.

Northwestern University computer scientist Oliver S. Cossairt explained how Gauguin created the print on February 14 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in San Jose.

The new results put Gauguin’s use of materials and process in a chronological order. He crafted the print using a layering of images created on paper by drawings, transfer of images, and two different inks.

“To measure the 3D surface of the prints, we used some very accessible techniques that can be used by art conservators and historians around the world to analyze artworks,” says Cossairt, who developed the software to analyze the imaging data.

“In applying these techniques to Gauguin’s work, we came up with some interesting answers to questions about what his printing process was.”

gauguin's nativity
Paul Gauguin. “Nativity (Mother and Child Surrounded by Five Figures)” c. 1902. The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Robert Allerton.

‘Peel away’ the color

Cossairt and his colleagues studied “Nativity” and 18 other Gauguin monoprints in the Art Institute’s collection. They used multiple wavelengths of light shining from different directions onto the prints to investigate the surface of the paper. The photometric stereo technique allowed the researchers to mathematically separate color from surface shape, providing a much clearer view of the paper’s topography.

To study a print, the team fixed the piece in place, as well as an SLR camera. They moved a light bulb to 20 different locations and took a photo of the artwork in each light bulb position. The digital data for each pixel of each image was processed by Cossairt’s software.

Essentially, the researchers were measuring only the response of an artwork’s surface to changing lighting. (Each digital image is 10 megapixels, meaning the researchers processed 200 million pixels for each artwork.)

“The technique allows us to peel away the print’s color and look at the surface structure only,” Cossairt says. “For each image, we know the angle of the lighting and the brightness of each pixel and from that we can calculate the unknown—the surface structure.”

What the surface structure reveals

The white lines, where there is an absence of ink (they have been known as “blind incisions”), are on a flat surface. This indicates those lines were not produced using a relief process but rather a transfer process, where Gauguin drew on an inked surface, removing ink, and those empty lines were transferred to his print.

The ink of the black lines sits atop ridges in the paper, indicating that he used a monotype transfer process. Gauguin would have placed his paper on an inked surface and then drawn on the back of the paper, causing ink to be transferred to the paper where pressure from the artist’s pencil was applied. (The pressure also caused the ridges.)


For some of Gauguin’s work, his technique is clear and unambiguous—a straightforward oil painting or woodblock print. But for other works, it’s difficult to understand his process of creation.

The “Nativity” findings overturn an earlier theory about how Gauguin might have produced the print.

Cossairt’s art conservator colleagues initially were “blown away” by the scientific results, so the research team reproduced what they believed to be Gauguin’s process. They were able to produce a print very similar to Gauguin’s original.

“Gauguin probably was doing these kinds of prints for five years, so this research puts a whole body of work together,” says Harriet Stratis, senior research conservator at the Art Institute and the museum’s lead collaborator on the Gauguin project. “The evidence points to a completely different artistic approach by Gauguin.”

The research is part of the Northwestern University-Art Institute of Chicago Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS) program.

The surface topography research on “Nativity” and other graphic works by the artist will be part of a major Gauguin exhibit at the Art Institute in 2017.

Source: Northwestern University