Madelaine Corbin had been curious about color for a long time. A visual artist and art major, she always considered its application in an artistic context, but wondered what really makes something a color. Is it inherent in an object? Is it in the eye of the perceiver? Is it based on chemical structure?
A guest lecture in one of her art classes by OSU materials science professor Mas Subramanian deepened her interest. The lecture was on the chemical nature of pigments, and she knew she wanted to find out more.
“After studying so many unanswerable questions and concepts in art, learning about the answer to this question through science was intriguing to me,” she says.
Art professor Julie Green encouraged her to keep pushing this line of inquiry, prompting Corbin to pursue an internship in Subramanian’s pigment research group.
It was a good suggestion. In 2009, Subramanian and his team discovered a manganese-based, brilliant blue pigment that has since been named YlnMn blue and licensed to the Shepherd Color Company. Both Corbin and Green have used the pigment in their work.
“Art students have interests in a range of areas—history, science, design, foods—and it’s important for them to explore their natural curiosities,” Green explains. “Interdisciplinary research feeds our students’ minds, and often becomes a theme for their work.”
Green is no stranger to interdisciplinary research. Her work is strongly influenced by her interests in history, sociology, and science, and she likens her own creative process to the scientific method.
Her latest solo exhibition, “My New Blue Friends,” at Upfor Gallery in Portland, features 27 paintings in egg tempera airbrushed on cradled wood panels. Inspired by Japanese flow-blue ceramics, the technique Green uses in the series is nearly unheard of in the art world. Like the striking YlnMn pigment also featured in the series, it was discovered through a process of experimentation.
“There’s similarities between the science lab and an artist studio,” she says. “Both are places to run tests where we have more questions than answers and where we find surprises in our research.”
Green says she loves teaching art at a top-tier research institution. The interdisciplinary experiences at OSU create the kinds of opportunities you just can’t get at an all-arts school—being able to use a pigment synthesized on campus in your paintings, for example.
“It’s really special to use paint that you know the story of and which is made within a mile of where you are,” she says.
The Art of Science
In the lab, Corbin is known for her exceptional attention to detail as well as her ability to apply her visual instincts to the work. In order to track the sample locations inside the furnace, for example, she created diagrams using 3D images to make it easy to quickly identify the location of each pigment.
Corbin assists in the chemical synthesis of the pigments themselves—a practice she finds similar to her own art practice and approach.
“There is initial creativity in the idea of what you are going to make, and then there is a detailed, planned, and logical process that follows in executing that creative idea,” she says. “I related and responded to the careful and technical process because this is how I personally approach my own creative process.”
Corbin is the first art student to have an internship with Subramanian’s research group—but she certainly won’t be the last.
“Maddy is really amazing,” Subramanian says. “This is my first experience working with an art student, and she might be one of the best students I’ve ever had. I’m extremely impressed by her dedication and her ability to learn so quickly.”
The Pigment Project
Corbin’s work assisting Subramanian’s team in developing pigments of many colors — yellows, greens, purples, oranges and blues, for example — has compelled her to consider the stories and sources of pigments outside of the lab.
“It really inspired me to look at naturally occurring earth and minerals we can find outside, and figure out how we can use the pigments around us to create a shared perspective on color,” she says.
This year, Corbin and fellow artist and OSU alum Abigail Losli have launched a new project called Earth & Color: The Pigment Project. Earth & Color encourages people to collect naturally occurring pigments from everyday materials and submit images of their creations to a shared pigment library. On the site, readers can find instructions on how to collect samples and mix their own paints, and can download blank journals to record their creations. The goal is for followers to submit images of the pigments they’ve created, building maps of color based on geography and shared perspectives.
“Sharing knowledge, interests, questions, reasons, processes, and goals between people with different perspectives has become a central focus in a lot of my work,” Corbin says.
Back in the lab, Mas couldn’t agree more: “I’d like to see more art students doing this kind of thinking in the lab—and more scientists in the art studio.”