Science has uncovered the secrets to French artist Paul Gauguin's striking images

Paul Gauguin’s Nativity (Mother and Child Surrounded by Five Figures), 1902. CREDIT: The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Robert Allerton.

The work of Paul Gauguin is renowned for its bold strokes and colourful images of life in Tahiti but few know that the French artist was also a printmaker.

While a lot is known about his paintings, little is known of his techniques and materials to make graphic works.

Scientists at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago have used a light bulb, an SLR camera and computers to uncover details of how Gauguin formed, layered and re-used imagery.

They used multiple wavelengths of light shining from different directions onto the prints to investigate the surface of the paper and re-evaluate how Gauguin created his works.

The stereo technique allowed the researchers to mathematically separate colour from surface shape, providing a much clearer view of the paper’s topography.

The research shows Gauguin created the print “Nativity” using a layering of images created on paper by drawings, transfer of images and two different inks.

The research team reproduced, in an Art Institute lab, what they believed to be Gauguin’s process.

Watch the process in this video:

“Gauguin made thousands of prints — it often was his way of working through ideas for his colourful paintings,” said Marc Walton, a senior scientist.

“By studying this one unique piece, ‘Nativity,’ we are developing a deeper understanding of Gauguin’s highly experimental printmaking and transfer techniques that we can apply to his other works, including his paintings.”

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