The Science Behind the Scenes

CHEM 176
The Chemistry of Art


Students learn about the chemistry of the materials and methods used to create, conserve and authenticate art objects. Topics include sculpture, painting, photography, textiles, jewelry, furniture and more. This course is taught in conjunction with the conservation department and staff of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH).

Ken Whitmire is an inorganic chemist and professor in the Department of Chemistry who has been at Rice for 39 years. His course, The Chemistry of Art, introduces students to the materials science behind art, covering everything from the pigments and materials involved in the creation of photography, sculpture and painting, to the chemicals and processes necessary for art’s conservation. Building on the long-standing collaboration between Rice and MFAH, Whitmire’s course has been taught almost every year since he first introduced it in 2005, providing countless students with firsthand experience with the vital scientific aspects of art.  

“One of the motivations I had for teaching the class was to provide a place where students who are artists could get an introduction to the types of materials they’re using, to the materials science that underlies their field,” Whitmire explained. “The best artists know what they’re using, why they’re using it, and what it does when combined with specific processes and mediums. I want students who would otherwise not take a chemistry class to have access to this important knowledge.”

Each week, Whitmire lectures to his small group about specific materials, mediums or art forms, covering topics such as organic pigments, textiles and fabrics, and predigital photography. The class also includes guest speakers from MFAH’s conservation department, who talk about the work that goes into preserving the museum’s collections. When not taught remotely, the class also visits MFAH and experiences the chemical processes behind art conservation. 

“Before this class, I had never considered how science is so fundamentally connected to every form of art,” Grace Stewart ’23 said. “I have always loved art and museums, and The Chemistry of Art really opened my eyes to a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that I previously didn’t know existed.”

As a lover of art with a long career in materials science, Whitmire has enjoyed teaching a class about two of his favorite topics, explaining that he learns something new every time. Because The Chemistry of Art is also a distribution course, most of the students who take it are not natural science or engineering majors, making the course a unique offering. “I wanted to teach a course that would be interesting to students outside of STEM and could connect to their own interests in music, the humanities or social sciences,” Whitmire said. “This is not a quantitative course, but it is a very eye-opening experience for students who get to see the materials and objects they work with or observe in a museum in a whole new light.”