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Eureka and a little bit of Disco – Grails series

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I’m currently working on a set of mixed media paintings about discovery in the Chemical and Materials Sciences.   I’m calling the series “grails”, and gilding the stars of each discovery.   There’s a bit of the mythical quest involved when a person or group of people peers off the edge of the known and decides to build an idea there and look for something brand new.  Plus I get to apply metal leaf to representations of molecules and such.  Win-win.

Density of States, mixed media on linen, 36 x 36 inches

There is a lot of good Science themed art around, but very little pertaining to Chemistry and less than that about Materials Science.  There is a lot out there that incorporates shapes or ideas from science and from data, and much of it is very good.

However as a practicing scientific researcher for many years, I find that there’s something a little strange about much of the imagery available to the public creatively relating to the sciences.  Most of it is so clean, streamlined, sometimes almost coldly clinical. Real scientific discovery and progress aren’t neat streamlined packaged processes.  The paths to Eureka are nonlinear, contentious, iterative, tangles and messy.  The researchers’ experience can be an exhausting combination of focused intellectual intensity, mind-numbing detail checking, elation (this is right!), and nerves (is it right? really?); often punctuated with pizza and beer.  Sometimes the mood feels a little bit disco.

So … I’ve been working on a series of paintings about discoveries in the molecular and materials sciences that capture a bit more of that discovery path and its many moods.  The first in the series “Density of states” is already finished, and will be described in another post in detail.

I’ve laid in the background and some of the molecular magic for the second, on the tropocollagen triple helix.  This was a major focus of my own research life for a number of years.  That should make it easier to paint, right?  Unfortunately that’s not the case, and I’m struggling a bit to create something that isn’t simply all about my own research.  Here’s an in progress photo, I’d guess it’s just under 1/2 way finished.

Mixed media on canvas, 36 x 36 inches (this is the acrylic based layer with some metal foil and glass lenses)

I’ve been trying to capture the layered nature of collagenous tissues, with hints of banded fibrils and single long-spacing crystals.  i personally like the way the small glass spheres and metal foil play with the techniques and ideas used to discover and study collagen’s structure: metal staining, immunogold labeling, etc.    I still need to add the characteristic coiled coil fiber X-ray diffraction pattern and maybe some unpublished math related to some research and fitting tropocollagen chirality to someone else’s theory and then back to tissue structures.  Once that’s laid in, I’ll switch to oil for better color intensity in selected areas.

The next one that’s off to a start is all about our itty bitty explosivitty friend Hydrogen.  Some readers may recall that hydrogen, with 1 proton and 1 electron has quantum states that can be calculated exactly.  Some may even be thinking about how much of our knowledge of molecular bonding and atomic orbitals has been guided by little hydrogen.  Or perhaps you’re musing on the weird hybrid qualities of the hydrogen bond and somewhat naked protons (naughty!).  This is as yet untitled and is off to the barest start – just a background laid in in acrylic so far.

This should be fun to finish and I’ll keep you posted as they come together.

A challenge for this series in general has been deciding whether to focus on my personal opinionated favorite discoveries or to try to find a consensus set of molecules, materials, and ideas.  I’ve decided to start with my personal faves, so expect a lot of polymers and maybe a magnetic structure down the line.