• 2014–2015 Provost's Initiatives

    "Lifecycle of a Painting," Professor Deanna O'Donnell, College of Liberal Arts

  • Course Description:

    Assistant Professor Deanna O'Donnell developed an interdisciplinary course titled "The Lifecycle of a Painting," which was driven by the idea that a painting’s story begins with the artist, but continues to change over time as the materials in the art interact with its environment. The course focused on the study of Impressionist paintings, namely those of Renoir and Monet. The inspiration for the course was a study completed at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) in spring 2014 examining the color fading in the painting Madame Leon Clapisson by Auguste Renoir. Using this study, among others, the students in the course examined basic color theory, composition, contrast, line, technique, materials, and the history in France that enabled the birth of the Impressionist period. After two weeks of training, learning how to use different non-destructive scientific methods to identify the composition of art materials, students took on a two-week independent study of an oil painting of their own design.  The paintings they studied were painted by Professor O’Donnell, and were replicas of Monet or Renoirs that are part of the AIC’s collection. The course followed a non-traditional structure, which was essential to its success so students could complete their project. 

    A theme throughout the course was the color red. We talked extensively about the fading of red colorants in paint: the chemical process that governs it, the impact it has on a paintings focal point, mood, and interpretation. Students made paint using the same methods as early artists that contained a fugitive dye (a dye susceptible to fading). They then forced the paint to fade over a two week period by exposure to UV-light. The results from this fading were used by the students in their independent study to predict how the fugitive dye in their painting would fade, when it would fade, and how that change in color would impact the composition and interpretation of the painting. They also had to suggest how the painting should be stored to maintain the integrity of the painting

     This course could only be done in a January term (J-term) format. The course met four days a week for 6 hours per day at Hamline, either 3-hours in class with the expectation of 3-hours of work outside of class or 6-hours in class or lab. Experts were brought in to talk with the students about the subject, either in person or via Skype. These were some of the moments that had the longest lasting impression on the students. In addition to the course meetings at Hamline, every Friday the class met at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) for a guided tour through a portion of the collection. The course concluded with 4 hours dedicated to students presenting their work.


    "I expected the takeaway from the course would be the development of the content, both on my part and the student’s independent studies. I was truly blown away by the outcomes from their independent studies but I am most proud of the level of engagement of the students had in the course. This was truly that best course I have ever taught. Students were driven by this new challenge, the application of chemical knowledge to a real-world problem, and the interdisciplinary nature of the course. Over 60% of the class had never been to MIA before. Many student’s reported the 3 trips to MIA had a big impact because they had never looked at art the way the tour guides made them. Standing in front of a painting for 10 minutes making observations and gauging their emotions was foreign to all but one student. One of these students reported after our 3rd visit, that she had never stopped and looked at paintings in this way before. She said is bombarded by images all the time and has learned to block them out, but now has learned to examine her world with a more critical eye. She needed to visit the museum three times to gain this appreciation.

    "Future iterations of the course must keep the MIA visits in the schedule. Students are still talking about it. The course built a student community that is still in place. I took many of my J-term students to the premiere of the movie "The Woman in Gold" over spring break. We will also be going to MIA’s Art in Bloom exhibit on May 2. With that said, I don’t know if this model is possible or sustainable for all faculty or departments. There was a tremendous amount of preparation for the course including 6-weeks to just complete the 6 paintings. I also developed ten unique lab experiments, orchestrated a 2-day workshop, a 2-day on-site visit with a conservation scientist, 3 tours of MIA, a tour of the Midwest Art Conservation Center. This course would not have been possible had it not been for the Provost’s Initiative. It was both the financial and administrative support that allowed me to make this course happen. Now that I have a strong foundation, I can see how this course could be offered in J-term every 2 or 3 years."

     —Professor Deanna O'Donnell