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The Chemistry of Art: Students collaborate to make and use dyes

 

Students from Dr. Peter Rosado Flores’ inorganic chemistry lab and Matt Forrest’s printmaking class collaborated recently to discover the natural chemistry between art and science.

The chemists’ molecules and artists’ touch resulted in Creamsicle-orange screen prints. Chemistry students connected two molecules together like puzzle pieces to get the chemical reaction and produce the pigment. Art students then added the dye to “binders” like oils or acrylic, thickening it for use in screen printing.

This application – and the collaboration between these two disciplines – is unique on college campuses, Forrest said.

“This color, this project, this overlap of art and chemistry has not been done before. We’re focusing on project-building between chemistry and art,” he said.


Assistant professor Matt Forrest shows art students how to mix dye with acrylic. 

Flores’ expertise in the cosmetics hair-color industry and Forrest’s background in screen printing gave them the idea to cooperate. They attended a collaboration workshop, sponsored by the National Science Foundation – where Forrest was the only artist among 30 chemists. The workshop focused on the history of art, but Flores and Forrest knew they could do more. They got their classes together, and the orange dye is the end-result. The two assistant professors plan to publish their findings and establish a hybrid college course between the two departments.

Senior Kyle Cooler of Decatur is a chemistry major, minoring in physics. He talks about “double-bonded nitrogen” and “vibrations at the frequency of invisibility” – science talk for what it takes to create the Azo dye. Groups called chromophores on the molecular structure of the dye are responsible for the orange color, Flores said.

“We don’t usually have a natural application for stuff we produce in lab,” Cooley said. “This was a nice interaction between the departments, which I enjoyed.”


Senior chemistry major Kyle Cooley mixing molecules to create a dye.

Most pigments for art are toxic, Flores said. Tints made in his chemistry lab are water soluble and less harmful than traditional lead- or mercury-based pigments. The collaboration with art helped his students see a direct connection between what they make in the lab and what’s manufactured for sale. 


Tools of the chemist.


Azo dye

Sophomore chemistry major Abigail Paige of Decatur said the lab’s dyes are cost effective and simple to create. They produce rich, bright colors like red, orange and yellow – not like basic colors available in stores. Paige is now working to create the more-difficult shade of blue with senior chemistry major Alexandra Hanna of Dacula and senior studio art major Emily Jovert of Dunwoody.

“Chemistry is related at its core to every discipline,” Paige said. “Through this experience, I’ve learned it’s important to investigate those connections and cross over rigid lines.” 


Senior chemistry major Jillian Turner mixes dye with an acrylic binder.

Once chemists make the dye, Jovert mixes it with acrylic-based primer to hold it together for screen printing. Prints are used in fine arts but also have commercial applications. They're used to make designs for clothing, coffee mugs and company logos.

“Crossing art and chemistry has been an incredible experience,” Jovert said. “It has allowed me to understand the exact chemistry that happens in printmaking. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the scientific side of it.”

Hanna and Jovert are bringing this research to another level – seeking to standardize a formula for the dye and reduce costs for print shops. They’ll present their findings at several conferences, including the American Chemical Society conference this spring in New Orleans.

“I love the opportunity I’ve had to work outside my discipline,” Hanna said. “It has opened my eyes to several possibilities in the field of chemistry I didn’t realize existed.” 


Senior chemistry majors Rachel Pendley and Robert Hughley Jr. heat molecules into dye.


Robert Hughley Jr. makes a screen print using Azo dye created in the lab.

 

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