Art Conservation 110: Artists’ Materials—Ancient and Modern

Spring 2011, Fall 2013, Fall 2016, Spring 2019, Fall 2021, Fall 2023

Eric Doehne, SC ARCN110

“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”

Course Intro

Sustainability, environmental influences, human achievement, and ethics lie at the intersection of materials science and art conservation. What materials are vulnerable? How can we prolong the lifespan of stone, paint or plastic? How compatible are proposed interventions? Through materials science, this course surveys these and other current conservation issues.

Course Description and Rationale

The discovery, invention and use of new materials and technologies traces back in time from today’s modern alloys and high-strength concrete to the red and yellow ochre, black manganese oxide, and charcoal pigments used in Paleolithic cave paintings.

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 materials are most vulnerable and why? What lessons in sustainability can we draw from ancient and modern materials?

The course combines the history and chemistry of art materials from the point of view of their past use and future conservation. Materials science is the interdisciplinary study of the properties of matter and their applications in science, art and engineering. How can we prolong the lifespan of diverse materials such as the house-paint 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, wood, plastic or the complex layers of paint on a beloved artifact?

Learning outcomes/objectives for this course

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.

Scripps College ARCN110