Art Conservation 110:  Artists’ Materials—Ancient and Modern

Spring 2011, Fall 2013, Fall 2016

Eric Doehne

“It is well-known that Vincent van Gogh often painted over his older works. Experts estimate that about one third of his early paintings conceal other compositions under them”

– News item

Course Description and Rationale

At the intersection of materials science and art conservation are issues of sustainability and environment, heritage and legacy. What artists’ materials are vulnerable? How can we prolong their lifespan? Can loss be prevented? Through materials science, this course surveys these and other current issues in the preservation of art, architecture, archives and archaeology.

There are abundant connections between our cultural history and the discovery, invention and use of new materials and technologies, tracing back in time from today’s modern alloys and high-strength concrete to carved stone and the red and yellow ochre, black manganese oxide and charcoal pigments used in Paleolithic cave paintings.

Materials science is the interdisciplinary study of the properties of matter and their applications in science, art and engineering. This course provides an understanding of materials such as stone, plastic and paint, in the context of creative and scientific questions that currently confront artists, curators, conservators and scientists: What artists’ materials are most vulnerable and why? How can we prolong the lifespan of diverse materials such as the housepaint used by Jackson Pollock and the adobe bricks used to build the California Missions? How can modern paintings be safely cleaned?  What lessons in sustainability can we draw from buildings that have been in continuous use for 2,000 years, such as the Pantheon in Rome?  And what are the fundamental patterns and behaviors that result in the untimely loss of stone, or the complex layers of paint on a beloved wooden artifact?

This course provides a grounding in issues of importance to future artists, applied scientists, art historians, archaeologists, and cultural resource managers.

Upon completing this course, participants will have a basic understanding of the application of materials science to art conservation; understand the interdisciplinary connections between complex issues of material behavior, environmental influences and heritage preservation; and possess a fundamental knowledge of materials needed to improve decision-making in the field of art conservation.

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