Chemistry in Art

December 11, 2017
Professor introduces chemistry course that incites creativity

By Sydney Collins, '20

Art is a mode of expression and craftsmanship. Science is the practice of making observations about physical properties of the world. The two disciplines are arguably distinct opposites from one another.

However, one UR professor has found a way to bring the two fields together. 

Chemistry professor Ryan Coppage has 15 years of pottery experience and an art minor. He is the director of introductory laboratories and works on materials chemistry research projects in regards to developing ceramic surface alternatives. He had the idea of teaching a class on chemistry and art for a few years and fall 2017 was the first semester that Chemistry in Art became offered. 

The course combines theoretical science concepts with current art practices to provide a greater understanding of chemistry’s role in art and show how the nature of color relies on chemical processes.

“The students actually do labs which are effectively art studio practices and then we talk about the science of the labs themselves,” Coppage said. “I bring in art conservationists, I’ve brought in a restorationist that has worked on $50 million paintings, anything that I can possibly get my hands on that talks about the intersection between science and art. 

Coppage structures his class by giving a lecture on a type of art, its history and its uses in modern times. He then talks about the science of how the methods works, such as the elements of composition, recipes and different pigment compositions.

“For example, we did a ceramics lab in which we used a 5,000-year-old Egyptian faience recipe where they would make the little turquoise statues of the Egyptian gods,” said Coppage. “I provided an adapted recipe for them, they molded their own statues. The students had to write up a lab report about the actual science of the material, what caused the color, how it was fired, why it was the color it was, how it was hard or petrified.”

Coppage geared the course toward non-science majors so art majors could take the class and learn more about the processes associated with their field of study. Art majors comprise the majority of his class and he said that his goal is for those art majors to understand the processes they have at their disposal and begin breaking rules in their specific medium.

“For me, it’s about education,” he said. “If someone is interested in art I think that if they understand what they’re doing a little bit more, it widens their perspective. All of a sudden, they’re not confined to the small amount of rules they have set in front of them. They can go in any direction they want if they understand the parameters they have.”

Through finding a medium between two fields of study that seem drastically different from one another, Coppage’s students are encouraged to look for further correlation among their academic endeavors.

“The course actually creates this large spectrum embodiment of knowledge where science and art actually intersect,” Coppage said. “For me, I get students of art who comment on how they understand additive versus subtractive color for pigments versus lighting. And they’ve started to already apply what they’ve learned in class to their other courses.”