On course: Bryn Mawr courses and their reading lists

Chemistry 100: The Stuff of Art Sharon J. Nieter Burgmayer, Professor of Chemistry

What causes frescos and paintings to darken over time?

How did the palette of the Pre-Raphaelites compare to that of the Renaissance artists?

What reactions convert limestone into quick lime and pit lime?

Artist and Professor of Chemistry Sharon Burgmayer teaches a new course on the historical relationships between chemistry and fine art. An alternative means for students to satisfy the one-semester laboratory science requirement, The Stuff of Art emphasizes the role of painting in the development and practice of chemistry.

"We do more than just chemistry," Burgmayer said. In addition to introducing major chemical concepts, weekly three-hour "studiolabs" crosses over into the fields of alchemy, color mixing, metallurgy, optics, and physics. Using microscopy, for example, students identify what pigments were used in a painting. They also make copper patinas, synthesize their own pigments using both ancient and modern methods, create fresco tiles, and get hands-on experience working with materials such as glass, ceramics, and m etal.

Reading list

Ball, Philip, Bright Earth: Art and the Innovation of Color (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

Dewey, John, Art as Experience (Minton, Balch & Company, 1934).

Elkins, James, What Painting Is (Routledge, 1999).

Findlay, Victoria, Color: A Natural History of the Palette (Ballantine Books, 2002).

Any introductory chemistry text.

The 20 students in the class this spring shared an interest in art but had diverse backgrounds, majoring in classics, history of art, and sociology, to name a few. In the course's on-line forum, discussions on the interplay of art and chemistry ranged from Paolo Cuelho's novel, The Alchemist, to the movie "Girl with a Pearl Earring," about Vermeer's painting of the same title.

"When I select paints now, I don't just look at their colors, but at their texture, composition, history and stability," one student said. And another student said the class allowed her to appreciate science as an art form: "It gives artists a greater understanding of how the 'stuff' they work with is made, and the theory behind how it all works at the molecular level."

The main inspiration for The Stuff of Art was Philip Ball's book, Bright Earth, which shows "how art and chemistry evolved together, and how closely aligned they were centuries and centuries ago," Burgmayer said. "I liked that historical approach to the two topics, rather than, say, how chemistry relates to art in the 21st century." She designed the class, cross-listed with History of Art, to illustrate historically the synergy between chemistry and the arts. A field trip to the Pennsylva nia Museum of Art helped students make those connections.

In notebooks, students recorded procedures, observations and ideas, plus formal summaries of each week's theme, including chemical symbolism and equations. Burgmayer also encouraged students to keep journals of their learning and stressed the importance of being able to "translate" a general chemistry textbook.

"My goal is that they gain sufficient knowledge of chemical terminology and symbolism so that they can open up a chemistry text, search for information on a topic and be able to read and assimilate most of what is there on their own," she said. Weekly quizzes helped students learn new vocabulary words and concepts. In addition, there were two exams. The only requirement of the individual project, worth 15 percent of the final grade, was to "use your imagination! Do something different!" That simple instruction yielded myriad results in the spring 2004 semester. A physics major made a series of pigments-cobalt blue, cobalt violet, cobalt green, and cobalt yellow-popularized by impressionist painters in the 1800s when the element cobalt was discovered. A philosophy major at Haverford wrote a paper on color, discussing rationality in terms of the theory that color does not exist.

Wanting to experiment with alternatives to traditional glazing, one student-a potter-mixed various metal oxides into small clay chips and fired them in a kiln at various temperatures. And another student used marble dust to make a small fresco duplicate of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," then caused it to deteriorate.

Burgmayer began experimenting with watercolors when her pre-school-aged sons took it up. "I was astounded at how some of the stuff one of my boys did was so beautiful, even though he was just messing around," she said. "I gradually bought better paints for myself and played around at night. I think I became aware of how painting put me in a whole different kind of space that felt good. It was kind of a therapy, plus I was working with color, and I love color. There is just so much that is satisfying about it. I got intrigued with learning more about the pigments and how to mix colors to get a certain result."


Support for the development of this course (a research associate and supplies) was made through the Center for Science and Society and the Center for Visual Culture. For more information, see the class web site. To view Burgmayer's work, including her recent series on cats and women, see www.brynmawr.edu/Acads/Chem/sburgmay/watercolors/

You may order these books from the Bryn Mawr College Bookstore, whose proceeds benefit the College: Elizabeth Morris, Bryn Mawr College Bookshop, New Gulph Road, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010, 610 526 5322, emorris@brynmawr.edu

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