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The Science Behind the Brushstrokes: Juniata Starts Chemistry in Art Course

(Posted March 17, 2003)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Art by definition is made to be appreciated, but a group of about 20 Juniata College students and their chemistry professor are looking beneath the surface of artworks to examine the scientific principles used to create them.

"I've always had a curiosity of how chemistry affects different areas of our lives," says Richard Hark, associate professor of chemistry at Juniata. "I'm actually not a very good artist, but I learn so much in the process of teaching the course it makes things fun for me, too."

The course, Chemistry 199: Chemistry of Art, is comprised of short lectures detailing the chemical principles behind, say, using acids for etching metals or how glass is made. The bulk of class time is spent in the laboratory, performing such chemical experiments as creating pigments and paints, as well as studying the chemistry of metal patinas and ceramics.

"In a chemistry course, much of the time is spent preparing students with basic concepts, which are the foundation for more advanced courses," Hark explains. "This course takes science out of its traditional areas and let's us explore topics of interest to students from a variety of backgrounds."

"It's all about the art for me," says Hannah Rauterkus, a freshman from Allison Park, Pa. studying peace and conflict studies and art. "Dr. Hark has a great knowledge of chemistry but also a great appreciation for the artistic world. I've actually come up with some nifty ideas on future art projects as a result of his class."

In future classes, the students will be preparing and painting a fresco (A method in which artists paint images onto wet plaster -- an example of a fresco is Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.), making paper and studying the chemistry of photography.

In addition, the students will learn the science behind detecting forgeries by studying experiments done on the Shroud of Turin, a cloth that purported to retain the image of Jesus Christ's face as the cloth was wrapped around him after his crucifixion. The students also will travel to Pittsburgh to tour the art research facilities at Carnegie Mellon University and take a trip to Washington, D.C. to tour the Smithsonian's National Gallery and the Smithsonian's research facility in Suitland, Md.

Hark is planning to introduce a little more technology the next time he offers the class. He just received a $30,000 grant from the Henry and Camille Dreyfus Foundation to purchase two instruments, an X-ray fluorescence instrument and a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscope. "These instruments will allow us to analyze pigments and materials in artworks to help us discover what materials were used in making the work which can be of help in the authentification process."

Eventually, Hark hopes to have his students study artwork from the permanent collection of the Juniata College Museum of Art as part of the course. "This course is not the first of its kind," Hark says. "There are other colleges that offer similar classes. What will make this fairly unique is the use of instrumentation and our ability to incorporate the museum's holdings into the course.

"This course is a great example of the synthesis of different subjects that the liberal arts can represent," Hark says.

The course is open to students studying science or other subjects and Hark estimates the class is evenly divided between science majors and students studying other areas.

"It does make it a little easier if you've taken some science classes," says Jessica Pratt, a sophomore from Carbondale, Pa. studying biology and museum studies. "Sometimes though I might think too deeply about the science when Dr. Hark is looking for a simple answer."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.