Art and science can seem two opposites on a spectrum. One is creative and interpretive, the other exact and empirical. But an emerging technology known as Pure Structural Colour – dubbed the “boldest, brightest color on Earth” in a new exhibition – shows how interplay between the two may be revolutionary for both.
Pure Structural Colour is produced from nanostructures – tiny particles that reflect and scatter light to replicate the brightest hues found in nature. It was developed by Lifescaped, a lab and studio founded by the scientist and artist Andrew Parker. This month, artworks incorporating the technology have gone on public display for the first time at “Naturally Brilliant Colour,” an exhibition at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, London.
The gallery itself is dark, with black walls accentuating expressionist paintings by Parker himself. Some were inspired by sunlight and phenomena like the Big Bang, while others imitate the colors and textures of flower petals and butterfly wings.
Elsewhere, panels bearing different hues of Pure Structural Colour “shine like jewels,” according to Paul Denton, head of visitor programs and exhibitions at Kew Gardens. Also on display is a painting by artist Coral G. Guest, who used the technology to recreate the metallic sheen of pollia berries. There are examples of possible commercial applications, too, from a pair of Nike sneakers to sunglasses and watches.
Art imitates life
Parker’s fascination with the colors found in nature began while studying marine organisms in Australia in the 1990s. “If we look at the tiniest of coral reef creatures under the microscope, we can see the most incredible colors, much brighter than pigments,” he said in a phone interview. “And when you look at them under electron microscopes you can see the minute structures that interact with light to produce these colors.”
The vivid hues of living creatures are often structural; they are produced by microscopic cell structures that can interact with light to create dazzling optic effects. Typically, artists rely on intricate combinations of pigments to portray the world around them, but using Pure Structural Colour may make it easier to reproducing a variety of color wavelengths, Parker said.
“Color is entirely formed in the mind. There are only waves of electromagnetic radiation passing all around us, and we convert that to color,” Parker said. “Art and science are really brought together by color. Here we’re using physics in order to manipulate and refine the nuances of color we can produce.”
One of the ways that Lifescaped has developed Pure Structural Colour is in the form of tiny transparent flakes. These can be mixed with a biodegradable polymer and paint formulations to produce various visual effects, such as intensely bright colors, iridescent colors that seem to change when viewed at different angles, and colors that seamlessly blends into one another.
“Reproducing the structural colors that we find in nature is particularly exciting, because we take advantage of the millions of years of evolution in producing technology that is near perfect at doing its job,” Parker explained in a video introduction to the exhibit.
In addition to drawing inspiration from the natural world, Pure Structural Colour invites awareness of the environment in another way altogether: It is less harmful to the planet than most dyes and pigments, according to Parker.
Commercially available acrylics and oil paint are made up of tiny pigments. To ensure they can spread evenly on a given surface, manufacturers add chemical solvents, resins and other additives that aid the drying process, Parker said.
When these paints dry, they release Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, formaldehyde and acetone. The US Environmental Protection Agency recognizes paints and varnishes as sources of common hazardous air pollutants, such as toluene and methylene chloride. Both short- and long-term exposure to these chemicals can cause health problems like birth defects and cancers, according to the CDC.
Beyond their impact on human health, some commercially available paints are also harmful for the environment. A 2014 study commissioned by the Norwegian Environment Agency found that particles from plastic-based paint, which is often applied to ship hulls and buildings, is the world’s second largest source of microplastic pollution.
In contrast, flakes of Pure Structural Colour naturally diffuse and assemble evenly on surfaces, and thus don’t require additional chemicals, according to Parker. Lifescaped’s colors are often produced using silicon dioxide, a biodegradable compound found organically in nature.
Parker said the environmental implications of the technology are, potentially, game-changing. As well as reducing reliance on toxic polluting paints, the nanostructures’ ability to form an extremely thin continuous surface could help reduce carbon emissions.
“The paint itself is lightweight, so it lends itself well to commercial products,” he said. “For example, if you replace the paints used to cover a jumbo jet with a structural color, you would be saving about one ton in weight, which is quite significant for fuel costs.”
While Pure Structural Colour is not yet commercially available, the Lifescaped lab is working with various companies to manufacture paints for sale, and hopes to have some available “within the next 12 months,” Parker said.
Parker’s mission stretches beyond the technology’s commercial potential, however. The scientist and artist said he wants visitors to leave the exhibition thinking more critically about the power of nature and how much humans can learn from it.
“Nature is of such value, and we need to do more to protect it,” Parker said. “There are so many other things we can learn by looking to nature. With a bit more effort we can come up with a lot more sustainable solutions in the future.”
“Naturally Brilliant Colour” is on at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, until September 26, 2021.