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The Art and Science of Color

“The Art and Science of Color”, also known as “Color!,” is a course in TCNJ’s First Seminar Program (FSP 141) that was designed to help students who are interested in art to learn about the history of colors, when and how new colors appeared on artists’ palettes, their impact on various cultures, and their impact on art.  Combining art history, chemistry, and physics, students learn to read the label on a tube of artist’s paint, and make their own decisions concerning ingredients.

One day, instead of diving into class time with a lecture and a PowerPoint presentation, the class was launched with an experiment. Chemistry professor Dr. John Allison handed pairs of students mortars and pestles, accompanied by small bits of dried material that resembled small chunks of wood.  “Grind up the material, then add a drop of water,” Dr. Allison told the class, leaving many questions as to why and what the students were doing. “Let’s see what happens.

Art and Science of Color 1Around the room, each pair of students hastily ground the bits to a powder and mixed droplets of water. Once the two ingredients were combined, the room responded with a communal exclamation of excitement. The dull powdered material had transformed into a brilliant scarlet red dye.

Then, Dr. Allison made the big reveal to the curious students: They had just extracted the dye called carminic acid by grinding cochineal beetles, making a previous lecture now come to life.

The professor explained to the class of shocked and inquisitive first-year students, that carmine is still found in an array of products that we consume.  From make-up and popsicles to Jell-O, carminic acid gives that special rosy hue to the products we love.

Art and Science of Color 2After that experiment, the students would never forget that even insects play a role in adding color to the world around us.

“Color!” strikes a balance of familiarizing students to both the historical uses of color, while also introducing them to chemical compounds. Aimed at students who do not major in the sciences, the class utilizes in-class experiences with research reports and analytical readings.

In addition to two textbooks for the course, a third plays an important role.  “I found this book,” Dr. Allison said. “It’s called, well, ‘Colour,’ and each student is given an article from it that has been written by a famous artist, or someone involved in some way in the fields of art and color. They analyze every word, every sentence, then begin writing papers about the articles.”

Encountering everything from the complicated language and references of 18th century writings to the haunting lyrics of Johnny Cash’s ‘Man in Black,’ the students pulled apart the writings to extract the meaning of color in the context of history, philosophy and science. Armed with historical knowledge of artists and pigments, research essays were written, peer reviewed, edited, then their findings were presented to the class.

The class reached far beyond looking at artists’ texts with a literary eye and analyzing the dangers of pigments found in goods laying around the house, by opening the eyes of students to the chemistry behind the colors of life. At the end of the semester, the class discussed making a short video about the class, and about the FSP program in general.

“The video, which I put on YouTube, just makes me smile,” Dr. Allison said.  “Obviously they had fun making it.  I enjoy watching it.  Hopefully it can show the outside world how unique the First Year Seminar Program is, and how much I enjoy being a part of it.  They did a great job, and from this class I would have expected nothing less.  Ian Cooley, one of my students, did an exceptional job with every aspect of the video.”

By Emma Colton

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