Did you know…
- Beating fibers used to create paper increases the hydrogen bonds between cellulose fibers, the bonds that give paper its structure and strength?
- That acid you use to etch glass doesn’t work because it’s an acid…but because of the fluoride it contains?
- Inorganic chemistry can help you understand how pigments in your paints work, while organic chemistry explains how many dyes work?
Science and art are more related than you might think, say Elizabeth Trimmer, associate professor of chemistry, and Lee Running, associate professor of art. The two co-taught this spring’s Chemistry of Artists’ Materials in which students alternated between the laboratory and the studio — learning why common artists’ materials work the way they do and using that knowledge to develop their own creative work.
Trimmer and Running have been developing this course for three years through a shared interest in conservation and artists materials. In fall 2010, they taught linked papermaking tutorials, one a chemistry approach, the other a studio approach. Running states “The studio and the laboratory are both research spaces where hypotheses are tested, experiments are conducted, and techniques are developed. They are also both spaces of practice and inspiration. It was very exciting to work with students to develop a research methodology to create individual projects.”
In the lab, students explored the chemical underpinnings of different materials by building models to visualize how atoms bond together and can be broken apart, synthesizing inorganic and organic compounds, learning how dyes and pigments can to bind to different surfaces, and more.
In the studio, the experiments continued, such as exploring how beating time affects the strength and flexibility of paper, grinding pigments with different binders for paints with different properties, and extracting natural and dyes from plants and insects.
Combining techniques from both the chemistry lab and the artist’s studio, they:
- Explored the properties of plaster and wax, common sculpture materials.
- Synthesized pigments — many based on metals — using inorganic chemistry techniques.
- Combined pigments with binders to make different types of paints — oil, tempera, watercolor, gouache, casein (milk), and encaustic.
- Created paper from denim, cotton, flax, abaca, and bamboo fibers.
- Synthesized Orange II (a dye) and extracted natural dyes from walnuts, madder root, red cabbage, and cochineal (a small scale insect); and then used them to dye paper, silk, wool, and polyester.
- Created frescos, learning the chemical reaction that fixes the pigment in the plaster as it cures.
Trimmer says she wanted to make chemistry more accessible to nonchemistry majors and credits three students in particular — with majors in biology, chemistry, and biological chemistry — with helping the course succeed in that goal. “They really got into the chemistry,” she says, “and the excitement that they showed helped the other students connect. And they would help teach it, too.”
Students really enjoyed the chance to put what they’d learned about the science behind the materials to the test, creating their own artistic experiments to work on their final projects.
Learn more about their work in the photo gallery.