Chemistry & the Arts

Chemists working in an arts-related field must have a passion for their art, because they must pay meticulous attention to the materials and processes behind how they are produced.

Typical Job Functions

Art and chemistry are intrinsically linked. Chemists formulate paints used on masterpieces hanging in museums around the world. They develop makeup and special effects for theater and movie productions. They work in the music industry, developing synthetic materials for manufacturing, maintaining, repairing, and restoring.

Other examples of chemistry applied to the arts include:

  • Documenting, cleaning, preserving, and repairing works of art
  • Authenticating 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
  • Developing pigments, dyes, paints, and coatings
  • Developing polymers, resins, alloys, and composites for sculptures and jewelry-making,
  • Developing new materials for stereolithography (3D printing)
  • Improving material properties so that they stand up over time or reduce harm to the environment
  • Developing safety procedures and equipment

Career Paths

Key areas where you can find the professional intersection of the arts and chemistry include the following. 

Conservation and Authentication

Competition is intense for the limited number of openings in conservation graduate programs. Conservators should be willing to relocate to fill available openings. The number of museum curators who move to other occupations is relatively low, and they tend to work beyond the typical retirement age.

Materials Chemistry

Art-related applications of materials chemistry might solve structural, optical, acoustic, or aesthetic problems, or develop materials with novel properties. Potential employers include universities, musical instrument manufacturers, and manufacturers of speakers and amplifiers. A strong engineering or physics background is useful in this field.

Employment opportunities for materials chemists related to the arts include:

  • Instrument-making (e.g., stereolithography; materials for drums heads, strings, lacquers, etc.)
  • Working as technicians to ensure products meet specifications
  • Creating more advanced or environmentally benign coatings, solvents, and adhesives for the visual arts
  • Developing polymer resins for sculpture or jewelry

Some arts-related materials chemistry careers are in decline. Film photography has been largely replaced by digital photography; and computer graphics are replacing painting and sketching in many cases.

Health and Safety

Occupational health and safety technicians collect data on the conditions of workspaces, including art studios and chemical manufacturing plants. Advances in technology, regulatory standards, and public expectations of safety and environmental protection drives demand for this career area.

Getting Started

Prerequisites to begin a career in an arts-related chemistry position vary by field.

  • Art conservation and authentication - Requires a master’s degree in conservation (or closely related field) and substantial work experience.
  • Materials chemistry - Requires a bachelor's degree in chemistry or a related field.
  • Occupational health and safety - Requires a bachelor's degree at the entry level.

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