Oct 19th 2015

Science in Art: The Chemistry of Art Materials and Conservation (edX)

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Learn the chemistry behind the visual arts, and how an understanding of art’s material properties helps preserve our cultural heritage.

How do artists create visual effects? In order to create an artistic impression, artists select materials that allow image formation, and that lend color, emphasis, shape, and size to the object created.

A scientist might follow up by asking, why those materials? What characteristics do they have that allow them to embody the artist’s intent? How durable are they? Will they maintain the same qualities, both physical and aesthetic, they had when the work left the studio?

Conservation science further notes that all materials deteriorate over time, and then asks a follow-up question: What physical interventions are possible to maintain, preserve and protect the work as the artist intended? Whatever is done to the art object, the result must be to make the work recognizable as the artist’s work or the result is a failure.

That is a key goal of this course: to understand, from a chemical point of view, how conservation protocols and the material aspects of an art work allow a better appreciation of an artwork and its creation, as well as confidence that it is the artist’s work.

These are not new problems. According to Leonardo da Vinci, the study of art should include the following topics:

- A knowledge of materials

- The chemistry of colors

- The mathematics of composition

- The laws of perspective

- The illusions of chiaroscuro

As the briefest study of Leonardo's life shows, he was clearly ahead of his time in wanting to understand the reasons for a vast array of natural and artificial phenomena. Even so, a thorough understanding of those subjects listed above still escapes us today – but, progress has been made and that progress is at once the subject matter and the goal of this course.