Robert DiMatteo Discusses Art and Science

Robert DiMatteo is a visual artist with a keen interest in science and the environment.  His current project, The Periodic Table, focuses on the visualisation of chemistry through art.  Each element he has tackled so far has three representations using different media; acryllic, graphite, and goache.  He envisions the series as a means to draw attention to the building blocks of the world around us— a world that is currently in an epoch of environmental change.  Lauren Schroeter, Thin Air Magazine’s visual arts editor, had the pleasure of interviewing Robert DiMatteo about this project. 

Argon. acrylic and coal slag on canvas.

So I guess to start off, can you describe a bit about yourself and the project you are working on?  

I have been an artist my entire life. I began as a realist painter, then at the age of 30, while spending two months at the MacDowell Colony in N.H. I made a complete leap into abstraction and never looked back really.  After working through various forms of abstraction, my work eventually settled on a reductive, geometric approach. For the past 9 years I have been working on a project that deals with bringing a visualization to the Periodic Table of Elements through painting and works on paper.

How did you arrive at this particular concept?  

My work has always been inspired, to one degree or another, by my interest in the Sciences. The arts and sciences are closely related in many ways – critical thinking, problem solving, experimentation and imagination are key aspects of both disciplines. 

I first thought about the Periodic Table as subject matter when I read Primo Levi’s book “The Periodic Table” in which he writes metaphorically about events in his life as a chemist. It got me thinking about the table and how I might interpret it relative to my concerns as a painter. I also realized that this could be a fitting match with my concerns about the environment and the fact that all of these elements are finite resources and bringing attention to them would be an added benefit.

Sulphur. acrylic, polyethelyne, and coal slag on canvas.

Which element did you begin the project with?

The first element I completed was Sulphur. I started with this one simply because it was the one I had an immediate vision and sense for because of its signature yellow color, oozing from vents in the Earth. It also has a pungent odor and I tried to capture that with the sickly yellows and greens that make up the palette of this painting.


I was actually going to ask about Sulphur in particular! What medium did you use for the textured aspect?

I used basic spray foam insulation and then batted it down and shaped it with a putty knife while it set. Then I sanded it and painted the color over it. 

Hydrogen. enamel, acrylic, and coal slag on canvas.

What kind of research do you do into the elements you paint?  I also have an interest in the sciences, and I remember when I first saw the selection you sent us I was immediately reminded of the atomic structures of various minerals.  Both Carbon and Arsenic’s designs seem to borrow from their respective element’s crystalline structure.

Yes, that is exactly it. I draw from the crystalline structure of each element and then I use an app that allows me to slice it various ways until I get a shape I think fits for my purposes. I am interested in how aperiodic tiling works so I loosely play with that approach when building the pattern – typically I create a template that I use to trace onto the canvas experimenting with various orientations until I get an arrangement that I like.

On your website, each of your completed elements actually has three corresponding paintings.  Do the different paintings represent different aspects of the element or are they just different means for you to express your interpretations of said elements?

The paintings on canvas are the main interpretation and stem from a variety of physical attributes – first, as mentioned in the previous question, is the crystalline structure, second, I derive the color palette from each element’s emission spectrum – each element has a color fingerprint from the light they emit when electrons jump between orbits (quantum leaps) so, for instance, Hydrogen has a set up colors on the light spectrum that it emits and that is how we know that the sun is made up of mostly hydrogen, along with helium and some trace elements. Once the structure of the painting and color palette is distinguished I work the rest intuitively until the painting feels right. The gouaches take a bit of a different approach, these are generated on the computer first, then traced out on paper. Next I develop the color palette based off of the painting’s palette – with some additional nuanced color. These works represent the atomic activity of the element, hence the chaotic, fractured compositional space. The drawing are pretty much take directly from the painting once it is complete and is simply another look at the element with simple materials – graphite and a white mixed medium (of my own recipe) – so the drawing actually comes after the painting which is a bit backward from the usual approach artists take in the process of working.

Carbonacrylic, graphite, and coal slag on canvas. 

Carbon is interesting as it is one of the elements most commonly referenced when speaking about the environment — carbon dioxide, carbon footprint, carbon emissions, hydrocarbons.  Carbon is also integral to life. It is an interesting element in that regard — it’s both necessary for life’s existence yet there is also so much focus on the harm it does. How did your interpretation of Carbon pull from your environmental concerns?

Truthfully, I did not approach carbon from any kind of CO2 concerns (since this is a compound), I was much more interested in the fact that it is the essence of all organic life. I used carbon-based materials in the painting – graphite powder mixed with a polymer so I could paint with it, as well as, cola slag (a carbon derivative) and then worked the pattern form a combination of its crystalline structure and the famous carbon 60 atom “Bucky Ball” which is made up of pentagons and hexagons that fit to make a complete sphere – “geodesics” (think of the soccer ball) and this is, of course, is the shape of our earth. The white lattice work on the left and right relate to the fact that carbon forms long chains which is why carbon bonds with so many other elements and makes so many kinds of life possible. I do hope that when viewing carbon people will think about the adverse effects of carbon by products. The whole purpose of this project is to bring awareness to all of the elements that contribute to life on this planet and to stress the fact that these are finite resources and we need to consider how we can mine and consume them responsibly in order to sustain ourselves and the planet. 

I interpreted the lattices in the Carbon picture as being steel beams, as carbon is integral in the production of steel and steel construction beams tend to bring to mind industrialization and development, at least to me. What elements are you planning on tackling next, if I may ask?

Yes, the idea of steel beams certainly makes sense – this is another great relationship between carbon’s molecular structure and how we use it to build large structures of a similar type.

As for the elements I am working on now. After Berylium, I worked on Silicon which I finished in the fall of 2019 (not on the website yet). This led me to the decision to approach the group of elements intrinsic to the development of the tech industry – so after Silicon I started work on Tantalum (which is almost finished) as well as Niobium (just begun) and will build from there with other elements that fall into this category.

Arsenicacrylic and coal slag on canvas.

You can find more of Robert’s Periodic Table collection on his website,  “Sulphur,” “Hydrogen,” and “Arsenic” will also will also be featured in the upcoming issue of Thin Air.

Lauren Schroeter is a trained paralegal and former opinion columnist from Houston, Texas. She received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s 2017 Short Story Contest for her story, “Chokehold.” Lauren received a B.A. in World Religions from Trinity University in San Antonio and is currently working on an MFA at Northern Arizona University.