Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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Sub Image2:Macro to Micro Structures
1) Atoms and Molecules2) Macro to Micro Structures
3) Energetics and Dynamics4) Theory and Practice in Chemical Systems5) Chemical Design6) The Chemistry of Life7) Chemistry and the Environment8) Chemistry at the Interface

Unit 2.5 History: Preserving Works of Art
Original version: Chemical methods are used to analyze and preserve works of art. Non-destructive methods, such as autoradiography and x-ray diffraction are used to study the chemistry of paintings.
Video program cues: 30:55 - 35:40

Chemisty in art


Orna, M.V. (2001)' Chemistry, Color, and Art, 'Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 78, No. 10, pp: 1305-1309

Gettys, N.S. (2001)' Pigments of Your Imagination: Making Artist's Paints, 'Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 78, No. 10, pp: 1320A-1320B.

Autoradiography of "Jonah"

“Albert Pinkham, a writer, is famous for his use of images from the bible and Shakespeare. One of the paintings that he has done which was checked by autoradiography is the painting Jonah. It is a scene depicting Jonah being swallowed by a whale. It was interesting to us looking at it with autoradiography; we were looking at it very carefully for 10-15 minutes, and all of a sudden, one of the members of our group said: there’s a face in that autoradiograph... It’s a portrait, one painting was painted over another painting. And the portrait painting was certainly not in the style of the writer.”

Jackie Olin
Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, Washington, D.C.


Analyzing the chemistry of paintings

“X-ray fluorescence can be used as a non-destructive technique for examining the elemental composition of a painting. So by knowing the energy of those X-rays, you can identify what that element is. When taking an X-ray source and a painting, and you focus the X-rays on the painting and the emitted X-rays can be identified, and so you can identify the atom and have some idea of what pigment it might be. If you find lead, for example, from X-ray fluorescence, you can’t be sure which lead-containing pigment it is. So you may go on to X-ray diffraction analysis. X-ray diffraction enables one to identify a compound, not only the elements in the compound, but the actual compound itself. It is very often a combination of techniques. Thousands and thousands of years ago, earth colors were used, in paintings in caves, for example. Those same earth colors are still in use today in many cases. But over time, there have been changes. For example, in the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, many pigments were manufactured. And today, a lot of pigments that are used by artists are manufactured… even discussing how materials change in time by oxidation, or by cross-linking, where small molecules combine with other molecules to form larger molecules. That process is important for a conservator for learning how things change with time. In order to do that, you need to have a background in chemistry.”

Jackie Olin
Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education, Washington, D.C.

Morrissey, S.R. (2001)' The Art Of Chemistry, 'Chemical & Engineering News, Vol. 78, No. 36, pp: 44.

Proceed to Unit 2.6 arrow

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