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The Next Generation Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) for Art Conservation
 in situ non-invasive imaging of the subsurface microstructure of objects

Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT) is an imaging method based on a fast scanning Michelson interferometer. Originally designed for biomedical applications such as in vivo examination of the eye, it is capable of non-invasive 3D imaging of subsurface microstructure. In previous projects funded by the Leverhulme Trust, EPSRC and the National Gallery, we were able to demonstrate the potential application of OCT to art conservation, art history and archaeology including:

  • non-invasive imaging of paint and varnish layers

  • dynamic monitoring of varnish removal using solvents

  • high resolution depth-resolved imaging of underdrawings (preparatory sketches)

  • dynamic monitoring of the drying and surface formation of different varnishes

  • non-invasive imaging of deterioration crusts on glass

  • non-invasive imaging of surface texture of jade to determine the tool marks

  • non-invasive imaging of glaze on ceramics and faience.

Imaging and Sensing for Archaeology, Art History and Conservation (ISAAC) performing Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT).

Ultra-High resolution Optical Coherence Tomography (UHR-OCT) system scanning an easel painting belonging to the National Gallery collection.

While current OCTs have shown potential in this field, they are optimised for biomedical applications. Some major limitations are:

(i) lower depth resolution compared to conventional microscopic examination of paint cross-sections;

(ii) limited probing depth through highly scattering paint.

Making a difference

The project aims to significantly improve the capabilities of OCT through increasing the depth resolution and the probing depth in order to:

  • reduce the need for sampling and enable the subsurface microstructure to be imaged on intact objects where sampling is not possible.

  • encourage more frequent and thorough examination of the whole object for early warning of deterioration.

  • improve the visibility and resolution of underdrawing on paintings for art historical research.

  • firmly establish OCT as a tool for non-invasive imaging in the heritage field.

  • to inform conservation strategy and create long term savings in the cost of conservation through monitoring degree of deterioration.

  • explore new problems in conservation and art history that the next generation OCT can help to solve.

Increasing the depth resolution involves broad band sources and increasing the probing depth needs sources at longer wavelength than the conventional wavelength range used in biomedical imaging. Specifically two OCT systems will be built so that used in conjunction, they would aim to match the information from conventional microscopic examination of sample cross-sections:

  • An 800 nm OCT optimised for imaging at high depth resolution: targeted towards applications where highest resolution is required but the material is relatively transparent, such as imaging of multiple thin varnish layers on painting surfaces or glazes on the surface of ceramics and enamels.

  • A 1960 nm OCT optimised for deeper penetration suitable for imaging cultural heritage objects consisting of more highly scattering materials. This would allow improved imaging of highly scattering paint layers and underdrawings beneath them (at higher lateral resolution than conventional infrared imaging), pigmented objects such as coloured enamels and glass with opacifiers.

Partner organisations
  • Nottingham Trent University, United Kingdom (Lead Research Organisation)

  • EPSRC, United Kingdom (Co-funder)

  • Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH) (Collaboration)

  • Brooklyn Museum (Collaboration)

  • BASF (Collaboration)

  • Smithsonian Institution, United States (Collaboration)

  • The National Archives, Richmond, United Kingdom (Collaboration)

  • University of Vigo, Spain (Collaboration)

  • Gooch & Housego (Collaboration)

  • British Museum (Collaboration)

  • GPE Germany (Collaboration)

  • University of Cambridge (Collaboration)

  • Dunhuang Academy (Collaboration)

  • Gooch & Housego Plc, United Kingdom (Project Partner)

  • Historic England, United Kingdom (Project Partner)


Conference Proceedings:

  • Masaki Tokurakawa, Jae Daniel, C. S. Chenug, H. Liang, W. Andrew Clarkson, Ultra-broadband Wavelength Swept Tm-doped Fibre Laser, CLEO Europe May 2013

  • C. S. Cheung, M. Tokurakawa, J. M. O. Daniel, W. A. Clarkson, H. Liang, A swept source Optical Coherence Tomography system at 2000nm for imaging of painted objects, SPIE O3A May 2013

  • H. Liang, Andrei Lucian, Chi Shing Cheung, Bomin Su, Systematic noninvasive optical investigation of wall paintings at a UNESCO world heritage site, SPIE O3A May 2013

  • C. S. Cheung, H. Liang, Ultra-high resolution Fourier domain optical coherence tomography for resolving thin layers in painted works of art, at SPIE O3A May 2013

  • Presentation by H. Liang on 'OCT dynamic monitoring of drying droplets and films' at OCT4NDT 13-14 February 2013, Linz, Austria

  • Poster presentation by C. S. Cheung on 'Ultra-high resolution optical coherence tomography for paintings' at OCT4NDT 13-14 February 2013, Linz, Austria

  • Presentation by Jae Daniel on 'Power-scalable wavelength-agile fibre laser source at two microns' at Europhoton 2012

  • Presentation by Rebecca Lange on 'Non-invasive imaging of archaeological tool marks with OCT', Photonex Optical Metrology Meeting, October 2011, Coventry

  • Presentation by Elizabeth Bemand on 'Optical Coherence Tomography for non-invasive in-situ monitoring of the bioreceptivity of sandstone monuments' at the International Conference on the Research and Conservation of the Kucha Caves, August 2011 Kizil, China

  • Invited talk on 'Contributions of astronomy to the study of art conservation and archaeology' at the workshop From Antikythera to the Square Kilometre Array: Lessons from the Ancients, 11 - 16 June 2012

  • Invited talk on 'Non-invasive investigations of a wall painting using optical coherence tomography and hyperspectral imaging', O3A: Optics for Arts, Architecture and Archaeology, World Photonics Congress, 26 May 2011 Munich, Germany

  • Presentation by Rebecca Lange on 'Application of Optical Coherence Tomography to the Subsurface Imaging of Wall Paintings' at the international workshop 'Application of imaging science to the interdisciplinary study of wall paintings along the silk road', 1 - 3 December 2010, Xi'an China

  • Invited talk on 'Optical Coherence Tomography for the Non-invasive Subsurface Imaging of Wall Paintings and Stones', at Going beneath the surface - ICON Stone and wall paintings conference, Institute of CONservation (ICON), London, 5 November 2010.

  • Invited talk on 'Next Generation Optical Coherence Tomography for Art Conservation' at the Research in the Historic Environment Seminar, English Heritage, London, May 2010

Journal Publications:

  • An article about the Application of a New Non-invasive Technique (Optical Coherence Tomography) to Paintings Conservation Project in the January 2011 issue of the Leverhulme Trust Newsletter.


Academic Investigator:   

Professor Haida Liang (Nottingham Trent University)

Professor Andrew ClarksonOptoelectronics Research Centre (University of Southampton)


Marika Spring (The National Gallery)

Dr David Thickett (English Heritage)

Research Fellows:           

Dr Sammy Cheung (Nottingham Trent University)

Masaki Tokurakawa (University of Southampton)

PhD Student:                   

Jae Daniel (University of Southampton)

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