Chemistry in the Arts

Art and chemistry have been linked since the day the first cave dweller smeared mineral pigments on a rock wall. Today’s chemists formulate pigments and dyes to precise specifications and ensure that they maintain their colors for decades. They develop polymers suitable for use in 3D printers. And they authenticate, preserve, and restore artifacts, from 1950s kitsch to 10,000-year-old cave paintings. Because many art supplies are made from toxic or hazardous materials, occupational health and safety is another career area for chemists.
Chemists may also develop makeup and special effects for theater and movie productions. Chemists and materials scientists work in the music industry as well, developing synthetic materials for manufacturing, maintaining, repairing, and restoring musical instruments and for use in electronic components, speakers, and amplifiers.

Typical Work Duties

  • Document, clean, preserve, and repair works of art. Often, an analysis of the materials used in the artwork and in previous restoration efforts is necessary in order to select or custom-design a restoration method.
  • Authenticate works of art and other artifacts using laboratory analysis and a knowledge of the materials and methods in use during the relevant period in history.
  • Develop pigments, dyes, paints, and coatings in new colors or to match precise color specifications.
  • Develop polymers, resins, alloys, and composites for sculptures and jewelry-making.
  • Develop new materials for stereo-lithography (3D printing). Improve material properties so that they stand up over time or reduce harm to the environment.
  • Develop makeup and special effects for theatrical and movie productions. Materials must produce the desired effect and meet safety and toxicity specifications for the actors, crew, and audience.
  • Design and develop new materials for musical instruments (guitar bodies, drum heads) and sound equipment (amplifiers and speakers).
  • Develop safety procedures and equipment for use in art studios and the use of art supplies.
  • Develop and enforce regulatory and industry standards for production, labeling, safe use, and disposal of art materials.
  • Inform and educate end users about the safe use and disposal of art supplies using printed and online guides and educational workshops and programs.

Technical Skills

  • Laboratory analysis methods and instrumentation.
  • Computer imaging skills.
  • Documentation and databases.
  • Knowledge of historical materials, the time periods during which they were typically used, and their compatibility with contemporary materials.
  • Mastery of fabrication and conservation techniques.
  • Materials testing methods.
  • Knowledge of materials aging, corrosion, weathering, and microbial degradation processes.
  • Knowledge of health and safety factors and government regulations.
  • Writing and other communications skills.


Career Path


In the past, conservators entered their field through a series of apprenticeships. Today, it is more common to obtain an academic degree, often at the graduate level, however, internships and apprenticeships remain an important part of this education. Post-graduate fellowships are also valued for professional development and broadening the conservator’s base of knowledge.
Practicing conservators attend workshops, courses, and professional meetings, and they read professional publications to keep current with changes in technology and methodology. Conservators may start their careers at smaller local and regional establishments, and then move to larger facilities as they gain experience and build their reputations. Competition is intense for the top museum positions. Individual research and publications are important for advancement in larger institutions.

Materials Chemists

Materials chemists at the technical level typically start their careers working in a manufacturing plant or a lab. They ensure that textiles, paints and coatings, or other products have the correct properties by monitoring machinery, checking the formulation and purity of the coloring components, and troubleshooting problems. They may be promoted to management positions, where they oversee operations, work with customer orders, match colors, record recipe changes, and make production notes.
Materials researchers may work for corporate R&D labs, universities, or government agencies. They develop polymers and electronic components for audio and video devices and musical instruments, update dye and pigment manufacturing processes to reduce the risks to human health and the environment, or develop materials with novel properties to produce special effects. They may start at a technical level and move into research (employers will sometimes help to finance their graduate studies while they are still working full-time or part-time), or they may enter the field after obtaining their graduate degree.

Occupational Health and Safety

Some occupational health and safety workers enter the field from other career areas, through assignments to committees, as collateral duties, or as informal departmental safety monitors. They may pick up additional education and training as their interest in this field increases or as they take on more advanced responsibilities. Others train specifically for work in health and safety, through academic programs, technical colleges, or certificate programs.
Chemical health and safety specialists may oversee manufacturing processes for materials used in the arts, or they may play a role in designing new processes or systems. They may assess the potential for risk or environmental and health effects of specific materials.
Those with significant levels of experience may move into training and management positions. Most occupational health and safety jobs are full-time, although some part-time work is available. Specialists with a great deal of experience may also find work as independent consultants and educators.

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