Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsTo make medicines palatable, disguise their taste, make them easy to swallow and provide an accurate dosage, the most popular systems used are pills, namely capsules and tablets. Capsules can be divided into hard and soft types, the hard capsules being used for powders or semi-solid preparations and the soft type for liquids. A tablet is a solid dosage of a medicine prepared by moulding or compression. As well as containing the biologically active medicine, capsules and tablets often contain other substances such as fillers, bulking and colouring agents. These increase, for example, the shelf-life of the medicine and improve the aesthetic look and feel of the medicine.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsHard capsules are made of gelatin, in two parts, one half being filled and then the two halves are fitted together. Whereas soft capsules are formed in a single piece, and the active ingredient is typically dissolved or suspended in an oil. In contrast, tablets can be made in virtually any shape, most being round, oval or capsule-shaped, to aid swallowing. To ensure they are strong enough to be handled they have a polymer coating, containing plastisicers and pigments - a smooth coating helps make larger tablets easier to swallow.

Skip to 1 minute and 19 secondsIt is estimated that during the lifetime of every person in the UK, they will be prescribed over 14,000 pills - if we add in the number of tablets and capsules we buy over the counter, this rises to a staggering 40,000 pills! Inspired by English artist Damien Hirst, and his works of art on pill cabinets, this activity is about celebrating the diversity in shape, size and colours of tablets and capsules. Hirst used glass-fronted cabinets, stacked with rows of medicines - one piece, called Lullaby Spring, containing 6136 handcrafted and individually painted pills, sold for £9.65 million at auction in 2007 - at the time, this broke the European record for work by a living artist!

Skip to 2 minutes and 10 secondsIn some works of art he arranged the medicines on the shelves

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 secondsso that they offer a model of the body: those at the top are medicines for the head; in the middle are medications for the stomach; those at the bottom treat ailments of the feet. So, be creative and produce an eye-catching display of any tablets and/or capsules of your choice - you could include vitamin tablets, cod liver oil capsules, throat lozenges or cough sweets. The aim is to emphasise the positive role of medicines in our health and wellbeing. Don't forget to take a photo of it and share it with us. Who knows, you could create a masterpiece!

Medicine display activity

Damien Hirst, the well-known British artist and art collector, has exhibited a variety of intriguing installations including a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde (HCHO) and a series of coloured dots in ordered rows.

In addition, Hirst produced a variety of works centred around using pills, capsules and packaging to create ‘medicine cabinets’.

We hope you will create your own artworks using common household medicines:

The following ingredients will be required:

  • A selection of tablets, such as vitamin supplements, throat lozenges, cod liver oil capsules and/or pain relief medication.

The following items will be required:

  • Any aids to artistic effect that you envisage, such as, backlights, glass cups, mirrors or other props.

The arrangement of the medicines is up to you. Be as creative as you like in your arrangements. You could take inspiration from Hirst or more general streams of art such as abstract geometry where geometric shapes are arranged to express meaning without forming recognisable real-world items.


Can you guess the significance of the pictures we took or what they symbolise? Remember to post your own artistic pictures our open Padlet or the Twitter hashtag #FLchemistry!


  • Take care not to ingest any tablets or medicines. We advise not to consume or re-package any of the medicines used during this activity and dispose of excess medicines in a food or general waste bin.

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This video is from the free online course:

Exploring Everyday Chemistry

University of York