The recent Chemistry World themed issue on Chemistry and Art brought to mind a range of possibilities for integrating art into the chemistry curriculum by means of context based learning

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Chemistry World devoted a recent issue to the theme of chemistry and art and a particular favourite among the range of great articles was Philip Ball’s The colourful science. This story outlines the chemist’s role in developing the increasing range of colours available to artists, and also how some of the earliest chemistry was done for art’s sake. One of the interesting points was how chemistry as a science began to develop: when it was realised that the white pigment lead white was poisonous, early chemists began the search for an alternative (and came up with zinc oxide). It’s worth chasing this article up with Neil Withers' podcast on vermilion.


All of this strikes me as some very rich context to teach chemistry. While industrial and environmental-type context problems are relevant and necessary, I feel that the relationship between chemistry and art may appeal to some students more. In my own teaching to forensic chemistry students, I discuss pigments and the use of EDX (energy-dispersive x-ray) spectroscopy to detect their presence. This can tie in nicely with SEM (scanning electron microscopy), which can show whether paints have been bulked up with chalk – the bulky chalk pieces being clearly visible under the microscope. Thus the coupling of SEM and EDX allows both the pigment signature of two identical colours to be determined, along with a morphological image to determine that similar colour paints can derive from different sources. There must be many other examples of context relating to art and colour: a very interesting variety of inorganic chemistry is waiting! The fantastic inforgraphic from Compound Interest blog is definitely a good start. (Image shown from Compound Interest blog and reused with permission)

Learn Chemistry resources

Readers interested in this topic may be interested in the Making colour exhibition at the National Gallery, UK, which runs until 7 September. While browsing Chemistry World, our office was getting a bit of a clear-out, and at the bottom of a large pile we found an old resource developed by the Royal Society of Chemistry in association with the National Gallery. I’ve since noticed that these materials are now available electronically – you can download the chemistry and art resources from Learn Chemistry – they are really excellent for anyone looking to integrate chemistry into their curriculum.


Art and art conservation

A related area that I think would be of interest to a lot of students is the chemistry of conservation. Again, this is an area ripe for context, both in terms of underlying chemistry and in terms of appropriate analytical and spectroscopic techniques. Almost by accident (but I know our editors better than that!), a series of articles on conservation is building up in Education in Chemistry and Chemistry World. Those that I can spot are:

I would be very interested to hear examples of how other educators are integrating chemistry and art into their curriculum.