LSU Chemistry Professor Teaches the Science Behind Art

BATON ROUGE – LSU Department of Chemistry Professor John A. Pojman may seem like a surprising choice to teach a medieval art class at first. He is not an artist, but he became fascinated with the materials used by artists throughout history and the chemistry of art materials after he invented a type of clay that cures with the application of heat in less than a minute. Sculpture artists have adopted Pojman’s invention as an art medium, which has inspired him to offer a new perspective on art.

“Most people don’t realize that the ‘drying’ process of oil paints is actually a chemical reaction between oxygen and the oil molecules to create a giant molecule,” Pojman said.

With his interest piqued, he started studying how materials, especially polymers, have been used throughout art history. This semester, Pojman is teaching a class in the LSU Odgen Honors College called The Materials of Art. His students learn the chemistry of fresco-making and watercolors, and they actually make their own materials in class each day. 

“Dr. Pojman’s class is a perfect representation of what an Honors class can be, and also what the new Center for Collaborative Knowledge is all about,” said LSU Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle. “It puts one of LSU’s best scientists in front of our outstanding students, in a way that emphasizes collaboration, experimentation and inter-disciplinarity. Oh, and it’s tremendously fun, too.”

One of the recent topics in Pojman’s class was tempera painting in which natural earth pigment powders were mixed with egg yolk to create a durable paint that was popular before the advent of oil paint. 

“Because the dried egg yolk is inflexible, the painting must be performed on a rigid surface, and wood was the usual choice,” said Pojman, who loaded up his car with plywood donated by the RoyOMartin Plywood Plant for his students to use.

Before the students could use the tempera they prepared in class, they applied a layer of rabbit skin glue and then several layers of gesso, a white coating material composed of rabbit skin glue and gypsum.

“I absolutely loved today’s class! I've never used tempera of any sort, so it was a cool experience,” said LSU first year student Adam Chlebos from McKinney, Texas, whose major is Mechanical Engineering with a minor in art.


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LSU Media Relations