The Chemist’s Art

by Rosie Coates

As the summer holidays approach you may be thinking about using your last few lessons with students this year to extend their view of chemistry beyond the curriculum, you may even (possibly) be thinking towards September and planning how you might like to set the tone for the new academic year in your lab. In either case I suggest a bit of art- both the graphic art of the painter, and, the art of the chemist.  In this blogpost we showcase some of the great resources available via the Royal Society of Chemistry’s learn-chemistry pages in collaboration with the National Gallery, suggest some beautiful in-class activities and even a spot of holiday reading!

The Chemistry of Art

Niobium Crystals (Dennis SK/dnn87- CCBY), Vanadium oxidation states (W. Oelen, CCBYSA), Universal Indicator paper (Public Domain).  Composite Image: science made simple CC-BY-NC

Universal Indicator paper (Public Domain), Niobium Crystals (Dennis SK/dnn87- CC-BY), Vanadium oxidation states (W. Oelen, CC-BY-SA). Composite Image: science made simple CC-BY-SA

Chemistry is gorgeous. Whether it’s indicator solution changing colour in different pH’s, transition metal salts of a multitude of colours or stunning crystal formations chemistry is a wonderfully visual science even inspiring some artworks, such as Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (which you can see at Yorkshire Sculpture Park).

Hilary Perkins CC-BY-SA

Part of the Seizure installation by Roger Hiorns. Photo: Hilary Perkins (CC-BY-SA)


Chemistry also provides a host of background roles in the world of art. Many artists in the past had a good understanding of chemistry, necessary to successfully mix their pigments and varnishes.  Today this knowledge isn’t always as important for artists but galleries looking after and authenticating artworks have teams of chemists to analyse and protect their collections.

You can find out more about how the National gallery makes use of chemistry in this short video (as well as other videos and resources via the RSC Learn-Chemistry pages).


If you’re able to get to the National Gallery in London over the summer holidays you can visit the Making Colour exhibition until 7th September 2014. If you can’t make it to the National Gallery you can still use the link to the RSC site above to download images of painting on display and information about their chemical connections.

Changing colours

Colour changes are important in chemistry because they give us clues to what reactions might be going on. Colour changing pigments are a brilliant combination: both interesting chemistry and interesting to look at!

Image: science made simple CC-BY-NC

Have a cuppa and all will be revealed! Photo: science made simple (CC-BY-NC)

My thermochromic colour changing mug certainly provides a talking point in the tearoom. When it’s cold it’s black but as it warms up the black pigment disappears revealing the text printed underneath.  In this case the pigment is a leucodye. Leucodyes loose their colour above a certain temperature range making them great for colour-changing crockery and, if you’re my age, you may remember those t-shirts which changed colour when touched with a warm hand (or a sweaty arm-pit, alas).

Tess Watson CC-BY

Liquid crystals are used in this forehead thermometer. Photo: Tess Watson (CC-BY)

Liquid crystals can also be used to create colour changing displays.  These change colour over a narrower temperature range than leucodyes, allowing them to be used in forehead thermometers like the one above. Perhaps the most useful example of using thermochromic materials though is the use of colour-changing coating for glass. In these cases the opposite colour change occurs to in my mug: when the material gets hot the it becomes coloured, acting as an in-built shade for windows.  This is a really great way to cut down on air-conditioning in glass office buildings as the glass itself can simply reduce the amount of light and heat getting into the room on hot, sunny days.

That’s chemistry all over really, gorgeous but far from just a pretty face!

Try it yourself

You can buy thermochromic pigments to try out yourself from a number of suppliers including mindsets.

For a Key Stage 3 practical investigation into pigments try this lesson plan from the primary science teaching trust. 

Holiday Reading

If you’re not able to get to Yorkshire Sculpture Park of the National Gallery during the holidays but you would like some more chemistry and art inspiration I highly recommend Philip Ball’s Bright Earth: the invention of colour a fascinating, footnote-filled journey through the relationship between art and chemistry including pages of illustrations from cave art to Anish Kapoor via Titian and Turner.

Curriculum Links



Properties of materials

Northern Ireland

Chemical and material behaviour:

Structures, properties, uses of materials


Materials- Properites and uses of substances

I have carried out research into novel materials and can begin to explain the scientific basis of their properties and discuss the possible impacts they may have on society.

SCN 4-16a


The Sustainable Earth (KS3):

  • the properties of sustainable materials and how these are related to their uses in everyday life, e.g. in the construction and manufacturing industries, and the importance of sustainability

Chemical and Material Behaviour (KS4):

  • The properties of a material determine its uses.


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