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How Do Artists Use Chemistry in Their Work?

Science and art are uniquely related, although the relationship is most obvious in the biological sciences and math. Chemistry, however, is the science that makes almost every artistic process possible. From photography, to paint mixing, to choosing what paper to use, chemistry permeates art and makes it possible.

Analog Photography

Everyone who knows anything about traditional photography knows that the photographic process is chemical. Photographic paper is specially made with a coating of chemicals. Unlike normal paper, it will not disintegrate in the liquid chemical baths, and can be "stained" with the image on film by having a light shined onto it, causing a chemical reaction in the paper. After the film is exposed onto the paper, the photographic paper is put through a number of liquid chemicals, each with its own use. One starts developing the image (whether in black and white or in color), another tones it (add shades of color such as sepia tones) and yet another stops the development process. Lastly, the paper is put into a pan of constantly moving water, to wash away the chemicals of the process before it is hung to dry.

Paint Mixing

Each type of paint is a mix of different types of chemicals. Oils, for example are created by starting with a mineral as pigment and adding it to a binder or carrying agent such as linseed oil, gum arabic or beeswax and a solvent or thinner to keep the paint in a liquid form. The solvent evaporates on contact with oxygen, leaving behind the pigment and binder. The left-behind molecules recombine to leave a hard, colored finish. An artist who mixes his paints from scratch has to learn a different "recipe" for each type of paint and sometimes for each color.

Sculpting Process

While many people think of marble statues when they think of sculptures, the reality is that you can find the results of sculpting all around you. From children's toys to furniture, most molded objects go through a process called injection molding, which is a similar process to that used by many artists to create sculptures. In this process the artist makes an original sculpture, usually from clay or plaster. It is then covered in a variety of chemical and wax coatings to make an exact replica, which is then removed from the original. Material is then poured into the mold to make a copy. This material is oftentimes a carefully measured mixture of liquid plastics chosen for specific properties (strength, durability, color, texture) or it can also be made out of liquefied metal, stone or minerals. Some artists specifically mix metals to create a chemical reaction resulting in different colors, textures or strengths.

Other Uses of Chemistry in Art

While not necessarily done by artists, art restoration is yet another important way chemistry is used in art. A conservation scientist specializes in repairing damaged art. These chemists can figure out what materials were used to make the piece, and how and why it has broken down. Conservationists remove old varnish from paintings, clean the artwork and make any repairs, then apply a synthetic resin that is more stable than nature-derived substances. This chemical compound stays glossy and does not yellow or crack with age.

About the Author

Carmen Laboy has been publishing short stories and poetry since 1998. Her work appears online and in "Tonguas Experimental Literature Magazine." She was a script reader for the Duke City Shootout 2010, arts education intern at 516arts gallery and has worked as an assistant for many artists. She studied at the Universidad de Puerto Rico and Escuela de Artes Plasticas, a prestigious art college.