A basic understanding of the physical composition of historic works of art, such as Old Master paintings, is essential for their long-term preservation. Such a broad understanding has largely been obtained over the last fifty years. However, a more sophisticated understanding of paintings' complex structures can also provide evidence of their modes of production. Such research can offer insights into historic technologies, of which surviving paintings are some of the finest products. This paper is an overview that uses a few examples to illustrate the sophisticated scientific and technological infrastructures that supported the creation of European art up to the 17th century. It briefly indicates how knowledge about material behaviour was transmitted and then lost. It treats great paintings as engineered structures made to the most exacting specifications and suggests that the physical nature of artworks offers researchers significant challenges.