Cool Courses: Chemistry and Art

In spring 2008, the chairs of the chemistry and art history departments teamed up to offer students a look at their subject matter from an interdisciplinary, hands-on perspective. “A question I get a lot is, ‘What does chemistry have to do with art?’” says Mike Haaf, associate professor and chair of the chemistry department. Haaf’s answer is, “It’s about understanding the materials. Scientists and artists are trying to do the same things—we’re trying to put our world into context.”

Gary Wells, associate professor and chair of the art history department, noted, “This kind of materials-oriented course is something the art history department doesn’t normally offer. It gave students a different perspective on works of art, allowing them to reframe their study and see the parallels between developments in both art and science.”

Students spent the semester learning the chemical fundamentals of the art process and then applying that knowledge to mix their own paints and dyes. Working in the lab with the students in the class was Colleen O'Loughlin ’08, biochemistry major and art minor, who served as teaching assistant for the course. “[The students] really react positively to the way the chemistry is presented in this class,” she said. 

“It’s not just sitting through lecture diagramming molecules. It’s a hands-on experience.” Exploratory student Abigail Jamiel ’11 particularly enjoyed the labs, in part because the experience was “like creating artwork but with really expensive scientific equipment instead of paints and paintbrushes.” The course also introduced students to careers such as art conservation and authentication. The class traveled to New York City for a private tour of the conservation laboratories at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they were able to see how professional art conservators do their work and how their work is informed by chemistry. Jamiel thought the trip really enhanced the learning in the course: “We got to see that our studies were relevant to the real world.”