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Picasso’s Masterpieces Made With House Paint

Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Scientists using a high-energy X-ray instrument say they have solved the long-running debate over what kind of paint Picasso used in his masterpieces.

It was common house paint, said Volker Rose, a physicist at the Argonne National Laboratory who led the study, published in Applied Physics A: Materials Science & Processing.

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"We were looking into pigments taken from Picasso's white paint, which from a material perspective is zinc oxide, and we were able to study the impurities that are there," Dr. Rose said.

The scientists also bought samples of decades-old house paint on eBay. After comparing those samples with Picasso's paint, they determined that the two shared the same chemical makeup.

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The instrument was a hard X-ray nanoprobe, developed by the Department of Energy to give scientists a close-up view of the chemical elements in physical materials. Its intended use is to improve the production of high-performance materials and energies. Using the nanoprobe, the researchers could view particles of paint that were just 30 nanometers wide. (A typical sheet of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick.)

In his regular work, Dr. Volker uses the nanoprobe to study zinc oxide, a key ingredient in batteries, energy-saving windows and liquid-crystal displays for computers and television. Because zinc oxide exists in white paint as well, it made a valuable clue for the physicist to learn about Picasso's paint.

Some art historians have long held that Picasso was among the first major artists to switch from traditional artists' paint to house paint, which is more affordable and creates a glossy image without brush strokes.