CSM Professors Attend NSF Conference to Understand "Chemistry in Art"

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.-- Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

LA PLATA, Md. - Art is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Thus, the color red can be seen as a means of drawing attention or as the color of lust, or it can be recognized by its hue and even known by one of its names such as cadmium red. For others, art is a science. The color cadmium red can be understood as a compound of mineral cadmium and sulfide (or selenium). The cadmium sulfoselenide crystals measure 0.5 microns on average and depending on the ratio of cadmium to sulfide can produce a range of colors from poppy orange to wine-stain maroon.

College of Southern Maryland (CSM) Professors Paul Billeter and Paula Martino joined 22 other teachers from across the nation for a week-long National Science Foundation (NSF) seminar at Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania on Chemistry in Art. Taught by Millersville University's Dr. Patricia Hill and Dr. Michael Henchman of Brandeis University, the seminar focused on hands-on activities that teachers could use to integrate chemistry with art or in some cases art with chemistry.

"You cannot fully appreciate a work of art by viewing it on a slide""You cannot fully appreciate a work of art by viewing it on a slide," said Martino, who is an adjunct art history professor at CSM, "unless you understand the painstaking work that artists undertake when they mix their own colors or use traditional art methods developed by earlier masters."

The seminar's hands-on projects allowed Billeter and Martino to experiment with techniques such as electro-copper plating, etching, borax glass and early photographic methods. The seminar also had the teachers mixing their own pigments from scratch and testing them in different binders such as oil, egg tempera and acrylics.

"it is really fascinating to discover how the artists used the materials around them to create these brilliant colors""I would like to teach a travel study class in Mexico or Central America dealing with Ancient American art, so it is really fascinating to discover how the artists used the materials around them to create these brilliant colors that are often still lively and vibrant today," said Martino.

"I was really intrigued by our discussions of how humans see color""For me, as a biologist, I was really intrigued by our discussions of how humans see color," said Billeter, who is a professor of biology at CSM. "We talked a great deal about how the eye perceives color and how the brain recognizes and differentiates between shades and spectrums."

"Exactly," said Martino. "Eighteenth-century painters like Monet figured out which colors to place together and how to place them on the canvas so that the objects in the painting appear dynamic to the viewer."

The Chemistry in Art seminar also afforded Billeter and Martino the opportunity to spend a day at the National Gallery's conservation labs. "The lab increased my interest in art, particularly in the science of how forgeries are detected," said Billeter. "We learned about solutions and enzymes, and how X-rays can be used to detect forgeries based on the amount of heavy metals found in the paint."

Martino added, "We also watched a video on and discussed Han van Meegeren, a famous Dutch forger who produced hundreds of fake Vermeers in his lifetime, including two that he had to paint in front of authorities to prove that he was a forger and not an art thief and Nazi collaborator." Both professors said the van Meegeren case was interesting because he was as much of a scientist as an artist in his own right.

Both professors said they are investigating how they can revise their courses to integrate the subjects and activities the seminar explored. "I would love to bring some of the simpler processes like pigment mixing and dye analysis into my art appreciation class," said Martino. "So often, there is this misconception that artists are able to do the things they do simply because they are talented; but by having the students attempt some of the daily tasks an artist must complete, we can show our students that the act of creating art involves a great deal of practice and work."

Billeter said, "I can see doing a lab in the biology classes based on color analysis, chlorophyll and chromatography…kind of a CSI lab where students could be given three nearly identical evidence samples and have to detect the fake."

Previous Chemistry in Art seminar attendees have enhanced their science courses by establishing labs for non-science and science majors, developing conservation and science courses for fine arts majors, and enhancing high school science courses with art projects to fuel interest in both subjects.

"It is something all colleges should be doing""It is something all colleges should be doing," said Martino. "When students have the opportunity to actively learn and investigate topics and information in a non-threatening manner from a variety of angles, it changes the way the students learn. They start to see the interconnectivity of subjects, the learning process and even their lives."

Billeter said, "They discover that art is influenced by science and that science can be art."

For information on CSM's biology and physical science programs, including chemistry, call 301-934-7841 or visit http://www.itc.csmd.edu/bio/ . For information on CSM's fine arts programs, including art history and appreciation, call 301-934-7863 or visit http://www.itc.csmd.edu/fin/ .

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