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A Colorful Approach to a Graduate Seminar: Sarah K. Rich’s Art History Course on Color

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Sarah Rich examines a painting

The best reason for a professor to revamp a course is the desire to learn something new, which is exactly why Sarah K. Rich, associate professor of art history, revised her seminar on color for the fall 2016 semester.

“I’ve taught this course twice before—once as a graduate student at Yale and once at Penn State—and I was bored with my syllabus. I also realized that there were practical issues regarding color that I didn’t understand. I wanted to know more and make the course more interesting for the students and myself,” said Rich.

Not only did Rich revitalize her course, but she also transformed her approach to the concept of the art history graduate seminar. In addition to weekly readings and discussions, her students also learned about the material features and applications of color from a wide range of guest lecturers in science labs, the Palmer Museum of Art, The Eberly Family Special Collections Library at Penn State, and in School of Visual Arts studios. Rich’s seminar attracted students from art history as well as studio art, making the collaboration between them an important element of course learning.  

“Unlike studio art majors, most art historians do not have primary experience with the materiality of color,” Rich explained. “We need artists around to keep us connected to our subject of study.”

One goal of the class was to help students understand the historical distance between contemporary understanding of color and understandings of color in the past. 

“Today many people have almost immediate access to a stunning range of hues thanks to digital screens and synthetic pigments whose composition we don’t typically know,” she added. “It is a situation that would baffle artists of the past—people who had to work very hard to squeeze a much narrower range of colors onto their palette.”

Rich’s course began with students grinding pigments to create their own colors using Cennino Cennini’s fourteenth-century treatise, Il libro dell'arte, for recipes. Readings also prompted students to consider issues of geographic access to certain minerals for pigments, the status and wealth that accompanied access to color, and even medicinal uses of different colors. Certain colors became particularly important not only because they were beautiful, but also because they were rare, as was the case with lapis lazuli stone that had to be mined in Afghanistan, or carmine that had to be harvested from Cochineal insects found in Mexico.

Rich looked for scientific input as well. “There are many components to color that art historians should understand better—issues regarding color vision, color calibration, color interaction, and the chemical bases of color, just to name a few. For information about such things, we needed a lot of guest scholars, because I was really out of my element.”

Rich’s guest lecturers explained the techniques for creating and understanding color through chemical reactions, pigment analysis, and modern technology.

Jack Hietpas, assistant professor of forensic science, hosted a lab in which students created Prussian Blue, which was arguably the first modern synthetic pigment and was favored by artists of the eighteenth century.

Sarah McClure, Harry and Elissa Sichi Early Career Professor in Anthropology, performed X-ray fluorescence (XRF) pigment analysis on two paintings from the Palmer Museum of Art to determine what minerals were used to produce the colors in the paintings. In addition, Nina Jablonski, Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology, presented her groundbreaking research on the development of melanin (the polymer responsible for skin pigmentation) in human evolution.

Ryan Russell, associate professor of graphic design, discussed the Pantone color matching system in order to help students understand the ways in which commercial standardization affects the colors that appear around us. 

The final presentations in the course were from the students, who gave their seminar research papers on topics ranging from the history of automobile paint colors to the theory of “pink noise.”

“The course became a bit unwieldy at times with all of the programming, but I was just so excited to learn that I couldn’t help myself!” admitted Rich. “It was fun, and I think the students learned a lot. I know I did!” 

View a gallery of images from the course: http://bit.ly/2toZwue