Young artists show it’s all a matter of chemistry

While the latest issue of Cosmos magazine features the works and words of some of the world’s best science-inspired artists, we’re also inspired by the educational possibilities of the intersection of science and art. At one high school in the Australian city of Melbourne a unit called “Chemists as Artists” has students produce a piece of art representing their personal experience of science.

In doing so students at Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School are expected to both understand chemical concepts and to view the world through a ‘chemistry lens’.  “Chemistry is not something that occurs only in a laboratory,” says program coordinator Fiona Donohue. “We wanted our students to develop the skills to think creatively about our world and our place in it and be able to engage others with that way of thinking by expressing their ideas about science through art.

The above featured artwork – The Leaf, ceramic, by Year 9 student Ji Soo Lee – is a fine demonstration of what can result: “Many different chemical processes were required into making this art piece, including oxidation and bisque firing clay,” Lee explains. “Oxidation was needed to turn chromite into chromium(III) oxide, a green pigment used for making paint. Polar molecules were a part of this piece as water is a polar molecule and the pigment needed to be dissolved in it. Because polar molecules only mix with other polar molecules and ionic compounds, the ionic compound chromium (III) oxide was able to dissolve in it. Bisque firing, meanwhile, must allow for a slow build-up of heat, which is why it may take days to complete.”

Here are a few other outcomes from the class of 2017, explained in the words of their creators.

The robin.
The Robin.
Credit: Sara Ahmad, Mac.Robertson High Girls School

The Robin, watercolour, by Sara Ahmad

It is quite amazing when you dive deeper into the chemistry behind watercolour painting.The water and the paint react together, mingling with weak bonds. Water is a polar substance, meaning it has both a partial positive and a partial negative charge. Water colour paint is also polar, therefore it interacts with water. Oil-based paint does not react with water because it is not polar.

Credit: Julia Mari Licup, Mac.Robertson High Girls School

Juxtaposition, papier-mâché by Julia Mari Licup

This papier-mâché balloon with oceanic motifs (including sea creatures) was created to show contrast and harmony in both piece and theme. The two subjects in the theme and the contrasting figures in the piece is reflected in the name Juxtaposition. I came across the idea of papier-mâché as I researched sculptures, the technique piquing my interest since it was both affordable and interesting to make. The hot-air balloon, to me, was not only an end agenda but also an exploration of both techniques and self, making the quite simple mesh of art and chemistry something to personally treasure.

The rose.
The Rose.
Credit: Manveen Kaur, Mac.Robertson High Girls School

The Rose, watercolour, by Manveen Kaur

Watercolours aren’t just simple paint; they are a pigment mixture dispersed in a vehicle consisting of six ingredients. The compound glycerine, used to inhibit the hardening of the paint, is ‘hygroscopic’ – able to absorb moisture – due to the three hydroxyl groups in its structure. Water, the ‘universal solvent’, dissolves the chemical components by forming hydration shells around them, once they dissociate into ions. The ‘fisheye’ effect on the leaves can be attributed to ethanol’s high electronegativity and ability to dissolve polar/non-polar substances. The alcohol acts like a magnet for the paint by withdrawing it from the influence of water and, due to capillary action, the paint and alcohol travel in an outward direction faster than water.

The tile triptych.
The Tile Triptych.
Credit: Chenxin Tu AND Areeba Masood, Mac.Robertson High Girls School

The Tile Triptych, ceramic, by Chenxin Tu and Areeba Masood

Freedom and space for creativity in a seemingly rigid and structured environment is represented by the sturdy foundation of tile covered in two-chemical colour experiments left to flow and spread with minimal control. Incomplete combustion was used to make the cloudy shades of grey on the centre tile, then locked in with a clear nail-polish topcoat. The three images on the tile demonstrate different densities of oil and water, and the action of food colouring, which is generally a polar solvent that dissolves in water but not in oil. The riot of colours on the two side tiles were from tie-dye effects created with permanent markers and concentrated isopropyl alcohol. Miscibility was used to ‘salt-out’ isopropyl alcohol from store-bought rubbing alcohol solution. The concentrated alcohol was then sprayed onto a tile coloured with permanent markers. The isopropyl alcohol is able to dissolve the non-polar ink solvents in permanent markers, leaving behind pigments. The dissolving inks mix at different rates due to the different polarities in differently-coloured dyes.

The hand you’re dealt.
The Hand You’re Dealt.
Credit: Mandy Ho, Mac.Robertson High Girls School

The Hand You’re Dealt, mixed media, by Mandy Ho

My art piece incorporates the processes of copper etching, marbling paper and crystallising Epsom salt. Throughout the ‘Chemistry as Artists’ unit I learned to view creativity and scientific endeavour in much the same way — a way to express the observed, and to communicate this succinctly yet viscerally. This piece focuses on how science constantly affects me and my way of thinking, from my hands and how I learn my environment, to my blood and how I am connected to the world, to the etched symbols.

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