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Chemistry and Art

CHE 104 Online Presentation

By Daniel Bornt
Mary Ann Teague, Instructor
Parkland College
Spring Semester 2005

For the person intending on pursuing a career or avocation in the visual arts, a solid background in chemistry would appear to be in order - of course the first thing that comes to mind is the application of chemistry to painting media. Having at least a cursory knowledge of how pigments and thinners and such work together, and what to expect in their usage over long and short periods of time, is necessary in understanding the physical aspects of works of art in this field. But beyond that, the entire material aspect of the artist’s trade is intimately bound up in direct applications of chemical procedures and processes that affect the artist’s work in a multitude of ways.

Hall of Bulls, Lascaux, France

Artists for centuries have turned to all manner of inventive tools and specially-prepared materials to “make their marks” - ever since the Cro-Magnons of the late Paleolithic Era found that they could mix the charcoal of burned embers and earth of various colors along with animal fats or blood to paint those marvelous animals on cave ceilings in southern France. In visual imagery, whether it's produced on a “canvas” of paper, woven cloth of some kind, wood, or stucco plastered onto walls, virtually every aspect of the artist’s creation from the moment it is begun to centuries after its completion, is affected by the tools used and the chemical processes occurring naturally through the ravages of time.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA, online at, an entire staff of people with special training in the arts of the “conservator” work behind the scenes to protect and restore the museum’s vast, multi-million dollar collection of art works of the modern era. For this staff, an in-depth knowledge of chemical and scientific processes relating to the field and technical virtuosity in applying those processes is a given.

Recently, MoMA’s conservators were given the task of restoring and stabilizing one of the quintessential images of modern art, the seminal work that heralds the beginning of the art style known as “Cubism:” Picasso’s masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Nearly reaching the century mark, the work, part of the museum's permanent collection, was beginning to show its age, and earlier restorations were no longer effective in the purpose in which they were intended. The next page will automatically open MoMA's website for review of this latest restoration while this article continues with a synopsis of the process.


Note: paint photo courtesy of Paul Chave, Inklink Studios, London.