Using paint analysis to find a hidden mural

Conservator Linda Waters, and her colleague Tijana Cvetkovic, have been helping Bronwyn Holloway-Smith of the Mural Search and Recovery Project investigate whether a 1960s mural by Mervyn E Taylor called  ‘First Kumara Planting’ ’ is still intact, hidden under white paint in the old Soil Bureau building in Taita.

soil-bureau-mural

The story so far

In my previous post I described how we used infra-red technology to attempt to see through the paint over the mural on site.

It soon became clear this wouldn’t be possible due to the nature of the artist’s paint and the house-paint over the mural.

So we then decided to take a tiny sample from the wall to put under the microscope to see if this technique yielded more results in seeing paint from the original mural. This proved a success!

Taking further paint samples

We now wanted to get an indication of whether the mural was there in its entirety so we went back for a second visit and took samples from elsewhere on the wall.

We had suggested that Bronwyn map out where the edges of the mural were expected to be using an old photograph as a reference. She had done this, so we could then aim, albeit approximately, for particular areas to sample.

We took one from the extreme left, and one from each of the top and the bottom. Our initial sample taken on the first visit had come from the right side, so there was no need to take another from there.

Locating an area to sample, using an image of the mural which has been marked out on the wall with tape. Photograph by Sean Waugh, Massey University

Locating an area to sample, using an image of the mural which has been marked out on the wall with tape. Photograph by Sean Waugh, Massey University

Taking a sample using a scalpel and a magnifying head lupe. Photograph by Sean Waugh, Massey University.

Taking a sample using a scalpel and a magnifying head lupe. Photograph by Sean Waugh, Massey University.

Documenting and labelling samples for transport back to our Conservation laboratory. Photograph by Sean Waugh, Massey University.

Documenting and labelling samples for transport back to our Conservation laboratory. Photograph by Sean Waugh, Massey University.

Results

Here are the results, with which we’re very happy, as it means the mural is likely there, complete, on the wall…you can see, under the two layers of white paint, blue, yellow and red paint artist’s paint from the different areas.

This strong blue is from the top of the mural.

Cross-section under the microscope at 100X showing a thin layer of the artist’s blue paint. Image by Linda Waters Te Papa

Cross-section under the microscope at 100X showing a thin layer of the artist’s blue paint. Image by Linda Waters Te Papa

 

There is bright yellow at the bottom, which may have line work on top of it related to the foliage seen in that area.

Cross-section under the microscope at 100X showing a thin layer of the artist’s yellow paint. Image by Linda Waters, Te Papa

Cross-section under the microscope at 100X showing a thin layer of the artist’s yellow paint. Image by Linda Waters, Te Papa

 

The red ‘ochre’ (descriptive of the colour, not ochre per se) is from the two figures and their implements on the left of the mural.

Cross-section 100X from top of mural showing artist's red/brown paint under two layers of white. Photograph by Linda Waters, Te Papa

Cross-section 100X from top of mural showing artist’s red/brown paint under two layers of white. Photograph by Linda Waters, Te Papa

Mural recovery?

Unfortunately the mural cannot be easily uncovered, either chemically with solvents or mechanically with scalpels.

Essentially this is due to the nature of the materials and the uneven concrete substrate.

The artist’s paint layer is very thin compared to the layers above it, and it sits on a rather textured, sort of pitted, concrete substrate;  because of this mechanical removal would result in damage to the original paint and a very unsatisfactory incomplete or uneven finish.

The use of solvents, too, would most likely affect both paint layers – the white paint over the mural and the artist’s paint are very similar, so solvent work to remove them would very likely damage the artist’s paint below.

Listen to Bronwyn Holloway Smith, my fellow painting conservator Tijana Cvetkovic, and I, talk about our second visit to Taita in a radio interview by Lynne Freeman on RNZ

 

 

 

2 Responses

  1. Simon Jay

    This is fascinating. I always loved Mervyn Taylor’s work and I used to work with his son Terrance Taylor at Learning media some years ago. His clear graphic style and strong colour akin to his wood cuts was something I always admired as an artist myself. It would be a wonderful thing to be able to restore this mural somehow albeit a difficult task.

    Reply
    • Linda Waters

      Hi Simon,
      It is exciting, and Mervyn’s designs are so stunning, I agree! We’ve enjoyed being able to assist Bronwyn in establishing the presence of the mural at Taita. Unfortunately it is not really possible to recover it, as the combination of materials on the wall, those of the artist, and the irregular concrete substrate really do dictate against a good outcome. Have you seen the Mural Recovery website at https://creative.massey.ac.nz/research/e-mervyn-taylor-mural-search-recovery-project/
      Regards,
      Linda

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