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The challenge

Painting the lily

A good resin can enrich the colours of a painting, give it presence as it hangs on a wall, and protect it from dust, dirt and abrasion. However, varnish coatings can discolour and crack over time. So, in order to keep our galleries' paintings looking their best, dedicated and meticulous painting conservators must remove old varnish coatings and reapply new ones several times over a painting's lifetime.

For years, the world's paintings conservators used a protective resin varnish called MS2A. Created in 1959, MS2A was the first varnish specifically designed for paintings conservation purposes. The product boasted a great surface finish, handling properties, and solubility in less toxic solvents, but it also had some limitations such as occasional yellowness and inconsistency between batches. Despite this, it was still a much-loved product by paintings conservators world-wide. In 2014, the company producing MS2A went out of production, and with it, the technical knowledge behind this important conservation grade resin.

Our response

A stroke of Aussie genius

Working with The NGV and local specialist chemical manufacturer Boron Molecular, we developed a new resin for saving the world's masterpieces. Called MS3, the next generation resin coating was created using cutting-edge flow chemistry processes at our world-class FloWorks labs in Victoria.

Hand applies a varnish resin onto a masterpiece painting with a thick soft brush
The resin has been designed specifically for conservation and cultural heritage applications, like the The repentance of Saint Peter by Guido Reni, housed at the NGV. Credit: Selina Ou and Narelle Wilson. ©  Selina Ou and Narelle Wilson, National Gallery of Victoria

MS3 retains all the properties that made predecessor MS2A so treasured by paintings conservators, but with flow chemistry our team was able to create a version that also addressed MS2A's minor defects. Flow chemistry delivered improved colour, chemical stability, and consistency between batches, producing a bespoke resin with minimal discolouration or cracking over time.

Unlike batch chemistry, where the reactants are combined in one go and reaction conditions can vary throughout the mixture volume, flow chemistry involves combining reactants continuously in a flowing tube which keeps reaction conditions consistent throughout the mixture volume. Flow chemistry processes can be used for small and large volumes and are controlled using advanced technology, which saves time, cuts energy costs and reduces waste. It also circumvents the need for operators to intervene between reactions, which keeps them safe.

The results

Australian innovation adds new sheen to old masters

MS3 is now being used by some of the world's most high-profile galleries, and it is receiving very positive reviews. NGV has used the resin in recent treatments of works in their collection. Namely Rembrandt's Two Old Men Disputing and van Dyck's portrait Philip Herbert, the 4th Earl of Pembroke.

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