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With Flying Colors

This semester, students in the interdisciplinary Art, Chemistry and Conservation course are exploring the intersection of chemistry and painting. Taught by Associate Professor of Art History Patricia Reilly and James Hammons Professor of Chemistry Tom Stephenson, and laboratory instructor Lori Sonntag, the class serves as an entry-level course to both disciplines, meant to attract students who might otherwise be hesitant to pursue them. In lecture and lab, students utilize a hands-on approach involving visual observation, scientific analysis, and cleaning and conservation techniques to better understand the complex ways in which art and science overlap.

“The more we understand about the original appearance of a work, the more we can interpret its historical significance,” says Reilly, who previously taught the course with Senior Chemistry Lecturer Ginger Heck. “And the more we understand about the chemistry of color, binders, oxidation, supports, materials and about materials in general, the more we can appreciate the effort and meaning that went into a work, and the effects of time and past restoration efforts on its appearance.”

Earlier this semester, students created pigments with the help of Sonntag, whose ongoing efforts make the course possible: 

Reilly (far left) and Stephenson (second from left) co-teach the course, which explores the intersection of chemistry and painting.

Gwyn Fletcher ’22 (left) and Victoria Kussman ’21 work in the lab.

Theo Uy ’22 (left) and Richard Cardrino ’23 consult instructions on making pigments.

Samples of sulfur (S8), cobalt chloride (CoCl2•6H2O), and zinc oxide (ZnO) provide color.

The class serves as an entry-level course to both art and chemistry, meant to attract students who might otherwise be hesitant to pursue these fields.

Maeve Hogan ’23 (left) and Eva Low ’22 work in the lab.

Rebecca Putnam ’23 poses with a beaker of potassium chromate (K2CrO4).

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