Test tubes, elements and molecules are common terms heard in college chemistry courses. But Rembrandt? The 17th century Dutch painter is as likely to get mentioned in Fordham’s “The Chemistry of Art” course as the many common carbon compounds. The course, which fulfills the undergraduate physical science requirement, offers students insight into how colors are produced, their molecular and atomic structures, carbon dating and chemical techniques used to detect forgeries. “I try to give the students some understanding of chemistry and what’s involved in the practice of science by relating it to things they are already familiar with, such as light and color,”
said Diana Bray, Ph.D., the chair of the chemistry department and the course’s instructor. The three-credit class, offered each spring for non-science majors, is limited to 40 students and is always full, Bray said. In addition to teaching the elements of color production, Bray also lectures about the authentication and conservation of artwork and the interaction of light and matter. Several of Bray’s students are art history majors who need to fulfill their science requirements and hope to gain relevant information from the course.
“Understanding the chemistry involved in painting gives me a greater appreciation for art,” said Sophomore Janis Huntley, an art history major in Bray’s class. “I wasn’t expecting the course to be so technical, but it’s interesting to see how art can be technical and to see colors broken down into molecules.” Huntley said she one day hopes to work for an art museum or auction house. A chemistry background could help.
After all, many art conservationists hold doctorates in chemistry, Bray said. Although her students may not aspire to hold advanced degrees in chemistry, they spend four hours a month in the lab measuring the wavelengths of colored light, writing simple chemical equations and mixing chemicals to create pigments. The labs culminate with students making blue and yellow pigments. The pigments are converted into opaque watercolors and used to paint pictures. Bray keeps depictions of red hearts, yellow flowers, green palm trees and abstract designs by past students in her office. Because of the class, she said, she has a greater appreciation for art.
Bray, who created her own “Chemistry of Art” course booklet, hopes her students feel the same way about chemistry. “Every breath we take involves many chemical reactions,” she said. “I hope the students learn to appreciate the whole body of knowledge we call chemistry and how it affects every segment of their lives.”