The art of painting isn’t one that can be readily taught in theory. The beauty of the craft is best understood through experimentation — testing techniques by applying color to material. At the root of that process is the ancient science of paint itself.
“It all comes back to pigment and color,” says Candice Smith Corby, assistant professor of studio arts. “Whatever material you add to pigment changes what it becomes — each of the methods has a unique history and a relationship with one another.”
To help students understand these historical methods and materials at an essential level, Smith Corby developed curricula for a course that brings to life the core techniques every painter should grasp — watercolor, egg tempera, encaustic and fresco. Around the same time that she was choosing a textbook for the course, she was surprised to learn that Maria Curtin, dean of the faculty and professor of chemistry, was using the same textbook (a relatively obscure resource on pigments and painting) in her own course examining the science behind art. As the professors talked, a Learning Community — a collaborative, cross-disciplinary course for second-year students — was born.
Understanding Painting at a Physical Level
The LC, Discovering Devotion in Creative Practice/Sacred Spaces, begins with Artist, Craftsman, Alchemist, an experiential course that helps students understand painting at a physical level. To achieve this, Smith Corby walks students through a series of hands-on experiments that in some ways turn her art studio into a kitchen. From creating a mayonnaise emulsion in order to learn the technique of egg tempera, to roasting a chicken as a means to explore the origins of parchment and ink, course activities build indelible connections between science and art.
“It’s a form of alchemy when transformations happen magically before your eyes,” says Smith Corby. “The physical memory of working with the ingredients helps the students tie concepts together.”
Curtin augments the experiments with insights about the science behind art, the physics of light, biology of the eye and even the toxicology, behind the art materials. Throughout the course, Smith Corby leads the students to apply the lessons by creating studio-based projects, including a watercolor, an encaustic self-portrait and an illuminated manuscript of a periodic element. Every step of the manuscript’s creation is broken down and performed by the students. After they create the emulsion for the egg tempera and use oak galls to make ink, they apply the ink to the manuscript using turkey feathers collected from Smith Corby’s yard, and then make a meringue-based liquid called glair for the manuscript’s gold leafing.
Seminar in Italy Explores the Soul of Art
The thinking skills and strategies developed throughout the semester culminate in the ultimate hands-on activity for any student of art (or life): a weeklong journey to the Italian countryside, where students build an authentic fresco on-site at a villa. The course to this point is focused on painting’s science; the trip acquaints the students with the art form’s soul. The group explores fresco painting’s connection to the Catholic tradition’s most sacred spaces by visiting churches and religious sites in Rome and at the Vatican. There, the students come to see the creation of the frescoes as a devotional practice that embodies religious imagery.
The students experience the process of creating a fresco through an intensive workshop. At the villa, Smith Corby and William Pettit, a professor and artist based in Italy, guide them in a process that begins with the construction of the lime plaster wall at the fresco’s base and ends with the final layer of lime, plaster and marble dust. Through the process, the students learn why each section of the fresco is referenced in the art world as a giornata — a day’s work. According to Smith Corby, the process of creating something permanent leaves a lasting impression on students, regardless of whether they’re artists or among the many students simply attracted by the course’s unconventional methods. “They discover the rigor that comes in truly finishing something, and the meaning behind that,” she says. This integrative seminar puts students in the figurative shoes of an artist-scientist-craftsman like Michelangelo as they reflect on their new understanding of the materials that ultimately create a fresco.
In addition to the rewards of hard work, Smith Corby says the course provides students with other invaluable benefits: a broader worldview, teamwork skills and even the benefits of play.