Looking at Art Scientifically

A summer 2021 course for incoming students taught them to analyze paintings using techniques from chemistry, art, and visual studies.

Beloit College is a place where interdisciplinarity is paramount. Faculty and staff from various fields frequently collaborate to bring students multidimensional course work and unique perspectives on topics.

Looking at Art Scientifically taught by professor of chemistry Kristin J. Labby and Wright Museum of Art curator Christa Story was recently offered as a Summer Short Course for incoming students. The course drew upon the disciplines of visual studies, chemistry, and art, and dug into multiple approaches for analysis of paintings including visual observation techniques that promote skills that are useful across a wide variety of disciplines and, correspondingly, for a wide range of majors. It also covered periodic table chemistry and the theory behind x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to understand how this technique can determine elemental composition of an artist’s pigments.

Students analyzed pigment composition of paintings and use knowledge of pigment timelines to predict what pigments the artist may have used based on the attributed date of the painting.

Student feedback for the course includes “As someone who was unfamiliar with paintings, I thought that this course gave me both an artist’s and the chemist’s perspective while looking at art. I learned a lot about art research, curating, and … XRF spectroscopy!” and “One thing I learned from taking this course was how integral science was to art. I appreciated the love of art that everyone seemed to have and shared with everyone else. One skill I will take with me are my newly elevated observation skills.

July 22, 2021

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