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The Science Behind Art

Though many may assume art and science to be two different worlds, there is in fact some overlap- and it allows for ancient works of art to appear brand new.

When walking into a museum during a trip to Paris or New York, chemistry may not be the first idea that comes in mind. Although the two appear to be vastly different, unrelated subjects, the connection between the two is crucial. In order for art historians to accurately date and restore old paintings, certain principles of science must be applied.

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As early as in Ancient Greece, art has since been associated with innovation and technology- in fact, from the Greek word for art, techne, comes the root for the word “technology” (1). Of course, during that time there were no computers or anything close, however the association of these two fields was derived early in human history. And thus, long attributed to each other, art and science fields largely overlap in our everyday lives.

From the formulation of pigments used in paint comes a seemingly obvious connection to chemistry and its properties. Ancient cave dwellers, who evidently used art as a medium for expressing ideas, communication, and record keeping, had to utilize scientific ideas when creating such art (2). The pigments were made from the world around them- requiring them to produce a paint from commonly found resources.

In order for older, worn down paintings to be properly restored, the analysis of the molecular components of a painting must be properly uncovered. Several different procedures in dissecting these formulas of pigment have been discovered, like the Raman Spectroscopy:

“The most ideal analytical technique for pigment studies is Raman spectroscopy. It is non-destructive, if used with some care not to burn holes into the canvas by excessive laser power. It is truly a molecular analysis technique, measuring indirectly the vibration frequencies of molecules or crystalline material. And it can be implemented on a relatively small space, like in a tiny analytical laboratory” (3)

 

The restoration of paintings and works of art, with the aid of science, can surely tidy up and even dramatically alter a work. Most notably, during the 1980’s to 1990’s, Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel had been restored. The change was crystal clear- going from a flat, worn down wall painting to a vibrant, almost animation-like work of art, the Sistine Chapel has undergone a life-altering transition, albeit critics who shunned restorationists for adjusting the fresco (4)

Though such conservation efforts can reveal a brand new-looking piece, it often comes with a plethora of obstacles. With some artists using random mediums to add flair to their paintings (think: food and other household items), inevitably, some times things go wrong. The chemicals used by restorationists occasionally alter the original painting’s chemistry, with discoloration, salt formation, and disintegration taking place (5).

Thus, the art and science disciplines share origins, applications, and even fields of study. Though when stepping foot in your chemistry class you may not immediately think of ancient art restoration or word origins, the connection is clear. After all, what would museum and tourism be without the classical works of art?

 

References

(1) The Enduring Relationship of Science and Art http://www.artic.edu/aic/education/sciarttech/2a1.html

(2) Chemistry in the Arts https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/college-to-career/chemistry-careers/arts.html

(3) Combining Analytical Chemistry with Art History https://www.chemistryviews.org/details/ezine/4216331/Combining_Analytical_Chemistry_with_Art_History.html

(4) An interactive gallery of the Sistine Chapel’s before and after photos. https://www.davidbcalhoun.com/sistine-chapel-restorations/

(5) Modern Chemistry Techniques Save Ancient Art https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/modern-chemistry-techniques-save-ancient-art/

 

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