Kingston High School, just a couple of blocks away from R&F, has a vibrant art department, due in large part to its inspired and dedicated teachers. They bring their students here for encaustic workshops, and the students are welcome to come back and work on their own in the workshop room.
Several years ago art teacher Lara Giordano partnered with chemistry teacher Christine Marmo to help make chemistry relevant to art students. Shuttling between science lab and studio room, the students learn the chemistry behind paper, pigments, dyes, paints, binders, metals, and clays, which gives them a deep material understanding of printmaking, papermaking, painting, photography, ceramics, jewelry making, art conservation, and chemical hazards in art. This understanding gives them life-long tools to master the various mediums.
The students gain a full understanding of color as they study electromagnetic radiation, prisms, and the refraction of white light into the different wavelengths of colors. In order to learn about papermaking, for example, they study the intermolecular forces of hydrogen bonding between cellulose and water. Soil chemistry relates to ceramics, acid-base and oxidation-reduction reactions relates to photography, and the study of the body – the vulnerability of the respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems, as well as of skin and eyes – relates to understanding the chemical hazards of art materials.
I often wonder what such a class would have meant to me 45 years ago when I was a disaffected high school student flunking chemistry (and not much better in other subjects) but reading Max Doerner’s The Materials of the Artist to learn how to make egg tempera and explore the properties of oil paint. It would have made chemistry relevant to my obsession with art. It would have all made sense to me, and I would not have had to wait until I was making paint to finally appreciate the underlying science of making pictures.
When Lara and Christine asked me to give my talk on the chemistry and history of painting materials to their class, I was thrilled and intrigued by the challenge of simplifying this information for young artists. I’ve given this talk to professional artists and college students, but these kids don’t take second place in sophistication, and now and then I get questions that makes me pause.
The class was at 8:00 in the morning! (Who, after all, wants to learn chemistry at a reasonable hour?) The first day we explored what is color (how color is not a thing by itself but a chemical that reacts to light), the chemistry of pigments and dyes (what’s the difference?), the components of pigments (how, for example, cobalt blue is made from black cobalt oxide and silvery aluminum), and the history of pigments from ancient times to modern. All of this gets jammed into the 40-minute class period, so it’s just a sketch. But, still, we cover a lot of ground.
The second day we discussed different mediums and their relationship to pigments – how refraction and surface characteristics of the paint film affect the hue of a pigment. A pigment has a variety of hues and opacities depending on what medium it is in. Pigment in aqueous mediums (distemper, watercolor, egg tempera) is more opaque and lighter and brighter than pigment in oil or wax, which tends to be deeper and more translucent.
It’s a real challenge, but I love it every time I do it.