Carnegie Mellon University Department of Chemistry

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Interdisciplinary Carnegie Mellon Class Bridges Chemistry and Art

the Color of Minerals and Inorganic PigmentsPITTSBURGH — A new class at Carnegie Mellon University will require artists to don lab coats and chemists to wield brushes. In the Color of Minerals and Inorganic Pigments course, being offered for the first time this fall, students will explore the origin of the color using principles of inorganic chemistry. Just as artists did before the advent of mass-produced art materials in the 19th century, students will purify and grind minerals in the lab to create their own pigments to use in the studio and then will move on to an experience characteristic for life after the industrial revolution: chemically synthesizing their own pigments in the lab. The course—a joint effort between the Mellon College of Science and the School of Art—is different because it brings together in the same classroom senior chemistry and art students for a lesson in interdisciplinary work.

“This class cross-pollinates traditionally disparate disciplines through a lab-centered experience,” said Catalina Achim, assistant professor of chemistry and co-creator of the class. “We created this class so that we can reconnect the two disciplines for a study of their common ground: the color of minerals.”

Historically, artists visited their local apothecary to get raw materials from which they derived pigments and created paints to use in their artwork. Today’s artists buy ready-made paints, which may obscure the synergetic relationship between art and science, according to the course instructors. Achim and Clayton Merrell, associate professor of art, designed the course to help artists actually use chemistry as they create art; for example, the chemical interaction of pigments could be controlled to create paintings that would change over time. The course also opens the fields of mineralogy and art conservation and restoration to chemists, thus connecting their fundamental science knowledge to real life applications.

“In preparing this class it has struck me how painters and chemists work in similar environments (the laboratory/studio), with similar materials (reagents/solvents chemical compounds/pigments), and even with similar fixation on material process and ‘technique’ aimed at achieving various types of material transformations,” said Merrell. “Color will be the focus of our class because it is one of the most obvious and seductive areas of overlap.”

As part of the course, students will tour the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Research Center on the Materials of the Artist and Conservator at Carnegie Mellon, and the Carnegie Museum of Art and will examine the direct relationship between the materials showcased in the first, analyzed in the second, and used in the third. They also will visit the Art Conservation Department at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where they will see how chemistry is used to treat, preserve and restore works of art. Guest lecturers will include Paul M. Whitmore, Director of the Research Center on the Materials of the Artist and Conservator, and Marc Wilson, head of the Hillman Hall of Minerals and Gems. In addition to lecture and laboratory components, the students will work collaboratively on hands-on laboratory research projects, which will build toward their final project, an exhibition on the Origin of Color to be housed in the University Center at Carnegie Mellon.

The course has been enthusiastically received; art students at Carnegie Mellon quickly filled the six available slots in one day and the waiting list is long. Chemistry students fill the other six slots. The course and its projects have been designed to expand the expertise of students in both disciplines, while exposing them to the methods, demands and aims of the other.

The class is being supported by the National Science Foundation, the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the Department of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon and The Office of the Vice Provost for Education at Carnegie Mellon.

The Mellon College of Science at Carnegie Mellon maintains innovative research and educational programs in biological sciences, chemistry, physics, mathematics and several interdisciplinary areas. For more information, visit

The College of Fine Arts is a community of nationally and internationally recognized artists and professionals organized into five schools: Architecture, Art, Design, Drama and Music, and its associated centers and programs. For more information, visit

August 29, 2005

Eric Sloss
Amy Pavlak