7 Mar 2014

Intersecting Chemistry and Art

Submitted by Elizabeth Jamieson, Smith College

This semester I’m co-teaching our CHM 100:  Chemistry of Art Objects course for the first time.  This class is designed for non-majors and is co-taught with David Dempsey, the Associate Director for Museum Services at the Smith College Museum of Art.  We have 15 students in the class; many of them are not science majors and have little to no chemistry background.  My role is to teach the essential chemical concepts, while David focuses on the application of chemistry in art materials.

Over the course of the semester, we’ll explore the chemistry behind a number of different art media like frescos, photography, ceramics, and painting.  This past week I gained a new appreciation for silver halides and precipitation reactions as I prepared a lecture on the chemistry behind black and white photography.  I can’t wait to use some of these examples when I teach general chemistry next fall.  As a bioinorganic chemist, I tend to draw on biological examples in my teaching, but I’m finding that there plenty of examples in the art world that I’ll be able to use to try to engage more students in my classes.

The book we’re using for this class is “Chemistry and Artists’ Colors” 3rd edition by Mary Virginia Orna and Madeline P. Goodstein.  It covers the chemical concepts at a reasonable level for non-majors, but is also a good starting point for learning about the chemistry behind a variety of art techniques.  The other book that I’ve found helpful in preparing to teach this class is “The Science of Paintings” by W. Stanley Taft and James W. Mayer.

I’ll be thinking about developing learning objects to post on VIPEr on the intersection of chemistry and art as I go through this semester.  If any of you have any experience in this area, I hope you’ll post a comment or contribute your own learning object on VIPEr.


Betsy,  Thanks for the book recommendations--the Orna and Goodstein book sounds particularly interesting.   I am teaching a First Year Seminar called "Materials of Art:  The Science of Making Things Beautiful" in the fall, so I look forward to any of your suggestions and will hopefully have some more of my own to post!   

My colleague at USNA, Joseph Lomax, is currently teaching an elective about chemistry in art conservation. His wife is Suzanne Quillen Lomax, a chemist at the National Gallery of Art. Joe is writing a textbook on the subject so look out for this to be published in the near future!