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Chemistry and Art

CHE 104 Online Presentation
MoMA Page


MoMA's website on preserving the masterpiece is accessed in the window above, which details the process of conservation while explaining the background of one of Picasso's most famous pieces. (If window fails to open or doesn't display, you might have to refresh your page a couple times or click here to open the site in a separate window...)

Here a thorough knowledge of the chemical compostions of materials such as paint, waxes, varnishes, canvas, and supports comes into play, and how they age and react together over the years. And it's not just traditional chemistry that the museum relies on either; check out the link to"Analysis & Previous Treatments." Ultraviolet (UV) illumination, X-radiography, X-ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy (XRF), and Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) are part of the arsenal of high-tech tools employed to examine paintings to discover previous areas of retouching, changes artists made while working on their paintings, and identification of the constituents of the pigments used.

The examination and subsequent plan of action to conserve the painting is detailed in "Treatment 2003/04." When dealing with a work such as this that is probably valued at many millions of dollars, only those with long experience in the conservator's field would be allowed to even touch it, say nothing of actually work on it in either removing or adding materials! (In fact, as a side note, dusting is the only operation an unskilled person should do to a painting, and then only using a soft Japanese paste brush or other soft, high-quality brush - feather dusters are too abrasive! [ConservArt Associates, Inc., FAQ's -].)

Undergraduate prerequisites for admission into a conservation training program include a broad base of humanities and the fine arts and a solid foundation in the sciences. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works ( lists the recommended studies:

One full year each of general and organic chemistry with laboratory work is typically required. These courses should usually be freshman and sophomore level requirements for chemistry and biology majors. Supplemental studies recommended, but not always required, often include biology, biochemistry, geology, materials science, physics, and mathematics.

As can be seen, chemistry, even though it may be taken for granted because of its seamless integration into the artistic process, plays a crucial role in the direction and final results of the creator's efforts. Without a basic understanding of the nature and physical properties of materials being used, and a knowledge of physical phenomena (such as how light refracts into the various colors, and how the colors relate to each other), the artist is literally working in the dark.

Click here for a summary of health and warning labels likely seen on art products, or go to art products labels.