UCL News


Inspiring visual language: the science of art and the art of chemistry

23 August 2004

A significant and long overlooked driving force in the evolution of art will be explored as part of a two day symposium at University College London (UCL).

Renaissance, Impressionist and Cubist artists all revelled in the inspiration drawn from the invention of vibrant palettes of colour created thanks to the development of new chemical pigments. Yet today the influence of chemistry in art languishes in the sidelines.

Open to the public, the symposium, which will be held on Thursday 9 September and Friday 10 September, will begin by examining how a gulf has emerged between the subjects because artists no longer rely on their own technical knowledge and skill to create intense paint colours. Yet it will be argued that great innovators in art have always worked at the boundaries of technology.

Dr Philip Ball, journalist and popular science writer who will deliver the opening lecture, 'How chemists invented colour', explains:

"The invention and availability of new chemical pigments has indisputably guided the use of colour in art. It's only in the past half-century or so that every conceivable subdivision of the rainbow has been available in off-the-shelf tubes.

"Until the eighteenth century, most artists ground and mixed their own pigments. The almost sensual pleasure for the material component of colour demonstrates that artists of this time were on intimate terms with their paints and possessed some considerable skill as practical chemists.

"Nature has more hues than the artist has on his palette, but chemists expanded the range of colours available. Renaissance artists such as Titian and Raphael displayed a genius for working with brilliant hues but without chemists - or alchemists, as they were then - these wouldn't have been available. Similarly, consider the work of 20th Century French artist, Yves Klein: only with the development of chemical technology was he able to develop a new blue paint of unnerving vibrancy, used to such great effect in his monochromes."

Other topics that will be discussed in the symposium include how chemists are turning detective to end controversies that have surrounded the authenticity of many pieces of art. The symposium is being held in honour of Professor Robin Clark of UCL's Department of Chemistry, who pioneered the use of Raman microscopy in verifying art. He will discuss how he flushed out fakes including two 20th Century forgeries: the Vinland map, previously believed to date from c. 1434 AD and papyri, claimed to date from the period of Ramses II (c.1250 BC). Colleague Libby Sheldon of UCL's Department of the History of Art will also speak about her ten year investigation that led to the authentication of the 36th Vermeer painting, which subsequently sold at auction for £16.2 million in July 2004.

The symposium starts at 14.00, Thursday 9 September 2004 in the Chemistry Lecture Theatre, University College London, 20 Gordon Street. Tickets are free and can be requested from Kay Awan on +44 (0)20 7679 4637.

Notes to editors:

  1. Information about the symposium can be found at:

Further information:

To arrange an interview or book a place at the symposium, please contact Judith H Moore, Media Relations Manager at UCL, Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 7678, Mobile: +44 (0)77333 07596, Email: Judith.moore@ucl.ac.uk