6 Artists Getting Creative with Chemicals

Jessica Clifton

by Jessica Clifton

13th May 2020

The range of possible applications of chemicals is truly endless; they make up everything and are the catalysts that allow everything to happen. However, it may come as a surprise to learn that increasing numbers of artists are getting creative with chemicals and exploring the qualities chemicals can provide when they react with certain materials. The results are quite mesmerising.

See the magic that unfolds when science meets art.

Artists inspired by science

1.     Psychedelic Fire Painting

Image is the property of Von Cotu

Image is the property of Von Cotu

Von Cotu is an eccentric multimedia artist from Austria, who doesn’t hold any art-related degrees, and yet managed to introduce the concept of Pyro Chemography into the world; a unique process whereby fire and chemicals are used to paint onto film.

Von Cotu describes the beauty of Pyro Chemography: “Pyro Chemography reveals a hidden truth that surrounds us on a daily basis, exposing patterns and textures that recur in everything when observed closely.”

Although Von Cotu hasn’t revealed the exact process involved in creating his works of art, we know that this fire-painting involves a blowtorch and a mix of photographic chemicals, and that Von Cotu paints on large-format photographic film and other media.

“Pyro Chemography reveals a hidden truth that surrounds us on a daily basis, exposing patterns and textures that recur in everything when observed closely.”

The stunning images demonstrate the entire spectrum of nature, from micro-organisms to huge galaxies and when describing them, Von Cotu said, “my images represent the gigantic and minuscule aspects of the Universe we live in, and I feel privileged to merely show what is already there.”

The images are enlarged to reveal the intricate details in nature and in some cases, he uses multiple layers of film to create the image. Throughout the process, protective clothing (PPE) is required to guard against toxic gases and potential explosions.

Image is the property of Von Cotu

Image is the property of Von Cotu

2.     Fish Guy

Adam Summers has been aptly nicknamed “Fish Guy” by Washington University, where he studies vertebrate biomechanics and carries out research mostly in the field of aquatics.


Image is the property of Adam Summers

Adopting a process that dates back 40 years, Summers takes photos of the insides of dead fish to show their intricate skeletons underneath all the skin and scales. He presents their complex anatomical structure in a unique way by using chemicals to create the hypnotic works of art, which actually makes dead fish appear more aesthetically pleasing than you might think possible.

In order to achieve the unusual effect, Summers uses dyes such as Alcian blue to stain the cartilage and Alizarin red to stain the tiny bones. He then uses digestive enzyme trypsin to dissolve the flesh without attacking any of the cartilage, before bleaching out dark pigments with hydrogen peroxide. He finishes by submerging the organism in glycerine to make everything transparent, apart from the colourful parts.

His work was on exhibition at the Seattle Aquarium, where each image was displayed with an accompanying poem by Sierra Nelson.

To Summers, a simple caption just didn’t do the images justice and he discusses the similarities between biologists and poets as “a desire to understand detail, you focus on how things work. These things are qualities that good poets and good biologists share.”

Image is the property of Adam Summers

Image is the property of Adam Summers

3.     Altered States

Image is the property of Algis Kemezys

Image is the property of Algis Kemezys

Algis Kemezys is a photographer, filmmaker, and sculptor based in Canada. When faced with a house fire in the farmhouse he grew up in, most of his work was destroyed. Kemezys managed to make the best out of a devastating situation when he realised that the slides he discovered in the rubble had been altered by the fire, in very unusual and eerie ways.

Kemezys was so intrigued by what the fire had created, he set out to replicate the fascinating damage by using everyday household chemicals on other photographs, such as nail polish, glue and bleach.

To achieve the effect, Kemezys painted Kodachrome slides with the toxic chemicals before setting them on fire. In some cases, he burnt the image off the slide and then after freezing, the image was burnt back on. You can read his own account of the fire and how he created the images for more details.

The resulting images were thought-provoking representations of how the earth is becoming increasingly damaged. The artist says the message of his body of work is “Be Here Now”.

Image is the property of Algis Kemezys

Image is the property of Algis Kemezys

4.     Frozen Flowers

Officially named “Broken Flowers”, this body of art was created by Jon Shireman, a New York City-based photographer, who combined his photography with a touch of chemistry knowledge to create some compelling images.

To achieve the effect, Shireman soaked various types of flowers in the chemical liquid nitrogen for up to 30 minutes to cause the flower to freeze and become brittle enough for Shireman to smash into jagged pieces. He broke the flowers using a spring-loaded device he built himself, to catapult the flowers onto a white surface and snap the debris.

He recorded the destruction with a high-speed camera and by juxtaposing and images of the fresh flower with the dead, shattered flower, we can compare the beauty of nature and science.

Jon Shireman's shattered flowers

Image courtesy of Jon Shireman

The end result looks almost like an explosion of a broken china plate and The Huffington Post has compared the artwork to Shakespearian metaphors about how life, no matter how beautiful, always comes to an end.

5.     A Daily Dish

Image is the property of Klari Reis

Image is the property of Klari Reis

Klari Reis, a San Francisco-based artist, enrolled in her Daily Dish project by creating art using petri dish paintings.

During her early career as an architect, Reis became inspired by the colours and designs of terrazzo flooring at San Francisco International Airport. She’d always had an artistic flair, and decided to quit her job as an architect to enrol in graduate art programmes. Her portfolio consisted of architectural paintings, varnished with rubbery terrazzo.

As her art career was progressing, she fell ill and was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. Her doctor allowed her to watch her own cells reacting to different drugs through an electron microscope. Reis was fascinated by the fluorescent dyes used in the cells and had the idea to put plastics together in petri dishes.

To achieve this, she used toxic chemicals and plastic-epoxy polymer – a UV-resistant plastic. She used powders, oils, acrylics, and industrial dyes through many layers of ultra-glossy, durable plastic. The result was fusions of chemicals and polymers arranged in kaleidoscopic patterns and varying, contrasting colours.

Reis describes her project as “an attempt to explore our complex relationship with today’s biotechnological industry”. Her work caught the eye of London gallery owner Cynthia Corbett and was sent to art fairs all around the world.

Reis completed one dish a day in 2013 and her advice to anyone wanting to embark on the career of their dreams is “follow your own rules”.

Image is the property of Klari Reis

Image is the property of Klari Reis

6.     Space Art

The final individual we will focus on is Josh Taylor, a young entrepreneur from Surrey, UK. Josh had big ambitions as soon as he left school – with one particular dream to create a stunning piece of artwork … in space!

Josh enlisted the help of ReAgent for this mission, where he planned to create the world’s first Space Art canvas at a height of more than 100,000 feet. This worked by launching a balloon attached to a canvas, tubing, and paints which would be released into space.

ReAgent’s technical department got busy providing the chemical formulations that Josh would need to be successful in his project. We formulated special paints that would not freeze in space’s cold atmosphere. We also studied composition, viscosity and freezing points to come up with an optimum temperature of minus 45 degrees Centigrade.

Here, you can see the simple design we came up with when working with Josh, and some of the solutions we sent him.

Josh’s final painting used colours to represent aspects of the earth; green for land, blue for water, brown for desert, and yellow for the sun.

Image is the property of Josh Taylor

Image is the property of Josh Taylor and was taken from his website


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