Art Conservation 10: Chemistry for Art

Eric Doehne

““The most ominous of fallacies:

the belief that things can be kept static by inaction.”

- Freya Stark

“In time and with water, everything changes”

- Leonardo da Vinci

Course Description:

This course explores core concepts in materials and environmental chemistry through the study of works of art, laboratory creation of artists’ materials, and measurement of environmental degradation using state-of-the-art analytical instruments. The co-evolution of artists’ materials and chemistry reveals unexpected historical connections between the art of science and science of art.

What goes into the Art, Science, and Practice of Permanence?

Digital archives are useful for preservation and analysis. The sizes of the digital archives of our material heritage (art and artifacts, books and manuscripts, sites and structures) are uneven, mostly for technical reasons (2D vs. 3D). This course helps address this by engaging students in a series of hands-å class projects for the digital capture, analysis, restoration and dissemination of works of art: specifically, the 100 'hidden gems' of the museum and library collections at the Claremont Colleges, selected by their curators.

This experiential learning course provides students with inexpensive new tools, such as such as RTI for capturing surface textures, structure-from-motion software for 3D capture, UV-VIS-IR imaging using LED lights and a black-and-white camera to analyze, “back up” and provide increased access to important works of art. These digital tools also enable new questions to be asked, such as helping scholars understand how a sculpture or a palimpsest interacts with light, and revealing subtle details and inscriptions. For example, quantifying color images aids curators and art conservators in evaluating if the colors in a painting or a Native American basket have faded after loans and exhibitions. Using digital restoration techniques, students will gain insights into how a Winslow Homer painting appeared when it was created.

The course is for those interested in the application of digital tools to humanities issues, such as aesthetics, visualization, ethics, perception, and preservation. Participants will find that the application of science and technology to art increases the value of the direct and intimate experience of works of art (high tech/high touch). The fundamental challenge of two dimensional versus three-dimensional material heritage is that for 3D objects, a single photograph is an inadequate digital representation for the purposes of digital preservation.

Students in this course will also help build community and capacity at the five colleges, bringing together our museums and special collections with course projects in digital preservation, optics, technology, art conservation, art history, and the digital humanities–providing a new focus on 100 5C ‘gems of the collections’ and the stories they represent.

The archiving of art, artifacts, and archaeological sites has taken on a new sense of urgency due to the looting and warfare taking place in the cradle of humanity’s first civilizations (examples include = 3D capture; = GIS; and Digital Hammurabi = cuneiform tablets; KeckCaves = 3D visualization). Participants will confront these issues and to help begin to address the imbalance in our archives by learning about and applying efficient new methods of capturing art.