She Dozed Off in Class One Day. It Changed Her Life

August 16, 2023
Anna Perkins mixing paint

As a UVA student, Anna Perkins discovered “chemistry with colors in it,” she said, foreshadowing her future role as a paint formulator for Golden Artist Colors. (Contributed photo)

Anna Perkins was focused on a University of Virginia chemistry degree, but a passion for art always drew her to painting classes.

In class once, studio art professor Megan Marlatt held up an artist’s-grade oil paint and declared it as the best there is. The label on the container read “Williamsburg.”

“I committed that to memory,” Perkins said.

The 2017 graduate now works for Golden Artist Colors, the very company that makes the Williamsburg paint her professor held up for her to see. Her role at Golden Artist Colors is “formulator,” a job that marries her two passions.

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“As a formulator, I am a paint chemist,” she said. “[I am] writing recipes, so it’s a lot like cooking … [and] trying to optimize the properties [of paint].”

But this particular career path combining science and art – two completely separate fields in her mind – was something she never dreamed of at first.

Early in her college career, Perkins found art to be a “respite from the rest of my hard academic schedule.” Chemistry, on the other hand, was difficult. She reveled in the reward of solving a challenging chemistry problem.

And over time, she noticed chemistry and art starting to overlap in her classes.

For a group project in an analytical chemistry course, Perkins had to pretend she was a company selling a service. Immediately, “art conservation” stuck out to Perkins.

“That’s when I started looking at all these scientific articles that were about art conservation. I really didn’t realize how much science went into it,” she said.

Later, for a project centered on the art techniques of ancient Egyptians, she again witnessed “chemistry and art going together,” learning how the Egyptians created art materials to stand the test of time. Now as a formulator, she has a similar goal, for her paint to last generations.

By Perkins’ final year as a UVA undergrad, she knew she didn’t want to follow a conventional chemistry major path. But beyond that, she was unsure of what to do after graduation. In her last semester, she enrolled in a graduate-level chemistry class about X-ray diffraction.

Perkins demoing the paint
Perkins works with paint samples in her lab at Golden Artist Colors. She says she is either a chemist working in an art field or an artist working in a science field, whichever way you look at it. (Contributed photo)

During one of the periods, she fell asleep in the 15-person class. Her professor asked why and Perkins responded, “I stayed up all night painting” for her studio art thesis.

Rather than being offended, professor Michal Sabat told her of a project he had going on with The Fralin Museum of Art. They were trying to figure out whether a donated 14th-century icon was authentic using X-ray fluorescence. There, she saw a chemist working directly with art.

She had no idea at the time, but as a formulator for Golden Artist Colors, she, too, would be a chemist working in an artistic field. Or an artist working in a scientific field, whichever way you look at it.

Either way, she says having studied both chemistry and art helps a lot. “I know what to look for in a paint because I think about … how I would use it [as an artist],” she said.

And that’s precisely why the company CEO said Perkins is perfect for this job. “Not only are her skills adding value to artists, but she is also involved in providing resources for art conservators and collaborative research with art conservation scientists,” said Mark Golden, who also co-founded the company.

With the detailed eye of an artist, Perkins notices small differences in paint quality that are hard to catch. Correcting slight imbalances of an equation, like how much pigment to put in paint, is a quality of chemistry Perkins was attracted to as a student.

She thinks about being at UVA, where she first found out a job like hers was possible, and recalls a certain experience.

Her research professor, James Demas, showed her how to “bring creativity into science,” Perkins said.

As he showed her his work with fluorescent dyes and experimental design for the classroom, something clicked. “He showed me that chemistry doesn’t have to be clear and clinical. I was just like, ‘I think this is cool,’” she said.

“There’s chemistry with colors in it.”

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