This year, one of the ways I got through an extra long holiday season with a stressful family was by following the Internet feud between Stuart Semple and Anish Kapoor.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is the most entertaining thing to happen in the art world this century. For those of you who haven’t been following, the artist Anish Kapoor recently gained exclusive rights to use a color known as Vantablack, which is scientifically the darkest material ever made by humans, in his art. Upon hearing about this, another artist, Stuart Semple, retaliated by releasing a powdered paint called simply Pink, which he declares is the world’s pinkest pink. He made it available cheaply online to everyone in the world, with the exception of Kapoor.
Despite all purchasers having to agree to a legal disclaimer saying that they are not affiliated with Kapoor, he somehow got his hands on the paint, and posted an Instagram photo of himself using it. Semple, too, managed to somehow find Vantablack and post a picture of himself, with his fingers covered in it. And yet, Semple continued protesting, releasing the world’s most glittery glitter, yellowest yellow and greenest green in quick succession — all of which are legally available to anybody except Kapoor.
As entertaining as this paint war is, I think that the publicity surrounding the argument is overshadowing the fact that these pigments are amazing scientific inventions, not just entertainment fodder. And with the amount of bad news in the world these days, I think it’s important to highlight the good news — and these awesome science advancements are definitely an example of that.
Semple didn’t just come up with these paints overnight because he wanted to annoy Kapoor — in fact, he’s been collaborating with the world’s top paint scientists (yes, that’s a thing) for around a decade now, working incredibly hard to make his colors. And Vantablack wasn’t just created so that Kapoor could paint with it. It was also in development for years before it was released, and designed for use in telescopes to get better images of outer space and possibly lead to new discoveries in astronomy.
Vantablack absorbs 99.96 percent of visible light — far more than any other black pigment in the world — using carbon nanotube technology. Carbon nanotubes are sheets of carbon just one atom thick, rolled up into tiny tubes. When light shines on the pigment, each photon of light bounces around inside a tube — unable to escape from such a small space, it is effectively trapped.
Absorbing so little light means that a three-dimensional object coated in Vantablack will appear almost completely flat, as no reflected light means no shadows to add depth to the object. Currently, it is significantly more expensive than both diamond and gold.
Pink, however, works in almost the exact opposite way. Instead of being especially absorbent, it is especially reflective, using technology similar to night vision strips on a high-visibility jacket. The pigment fluoresces, which means that electrons in the paint are able to absorb light of a specific wavelength that gives them energy. They can then stay in this excited state for a short time. The pigment absorbs a medium green light, meaning that the reflected light appears as the opposite color on the color wheel, which is bright pink.
When these energized electrons relax, they again lose a specific amount of energy, though less than what was absorbed (as some has been used). This is released as light of a specific color, in this case bright pink.
Diamond Dust, the world’s most glittery glitter, is made from minuscule, randomly shaped shards of 99.8 percent clarity glass — so it’s almost perfectly clear. When light hits these tiny pieces of glass, it reflects back at every possible angle, due to the slightly different shape of each individual shard. This causes the glitter to shine just as bright as a diamond, reflecting so much more light than regular glitter (which is made of plastic) that it appears to glow.
I totally understand what Semple is saying about this feud — that he doesn’t think it’s okay for one person to have exclusive rights to a color, and that all artists should be able to experiment with this amazing new color in their work. But I also think that he should be talking more about the impressive science behind all these pigments, especially considering so many people see science and art as entirely unrelated fields, it would be great to see more publicity about how they’re now meeting.