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Interact: Iridescence in butterflies and paints


The shifting rainbow hues of iridescence have, until recently, remained exclusive to nature. Now, the latest advances in nanotechnology enable the introduction of novel, bio-inspired colour-shifting flakes into painting - thereby affording artists potential access to the full spectacle of iridescence. However, unfortunately, existing rules of easel painting do not apply to the new medium.

During her Interact: Artists in Industry placement at the University of Birmingham (Biosciences and Physics), Schenk attempted to overcome this incompatibility by studying the ingenious ways in which a wide range of iridescent effects are created in butterflies. As iridescent flakes mirror analogous nano-architectures in butterfly scales, studying the complex mechanisms inherent in the specimens' colour production can offer vital clues on how to convert these novel materials to the painter’s palette.


Thus, via adopting the above biomimetic approach, complemented by meticulous and time-consuming material experimentation, the artist eventually succeeded in recreating/ simulating the specimens oscillating colour in paint.



15 May 08



Placement at University of Birmingham: Notes from the Lab

Captivated by their ephemeral beauty, fragility and capacity for continuous transformation, my attention has recently turned to butterflies. A colour as dramatic as the metallic blue of the wings of the exotic Morpho butterfly has never been encountered in the art world. The strategies evolved by these butterflies over thousands of years to create, adjust and fine-tune iridescence suggest that the development of artistic materials and working methods reproducing such an effect would be a major advance.


With this in mind my Interact placement at the University of Birmingham (Jan - Aug 08) followed on seamlessly from a closely related project at the Natural History Museum, London. Working across the Schools of Biosciences and Physics, I have been able to persevere in my attempt to adapt latest iridescent 'pigment' technology for fine art painting. And, indeed, by studying the complex mechanisms associated with iridescent colour production in butterflies, I am beginning to overcome the many challenges inherent. Having initially simulated a range of iridescent effect on a small scale, the intention is now to develop large, textured paintings that like butterflies change in colour and pattern, depending on the light and movement of the viewer.


To aid colour-matching via spectrometry Dr Mark Colclough (School of Physics) initiated a student project, called "The Iridescent Properties of Butterflies and Paints". In response Katie Lane and Andrew Emms, the two eager undergraduate students, devised an experimental apparatus and methods to measure and compare the iridescent colours of butterfly wings and the paints newly developed by the artist.  In addition, Dr Norman Day from Biosciences, a life-long enthusiastic collector and photographer of butterflies, has perhaps inevitably become much engaged in the subject and has made a significant contribution. More recently further exciting opportunities have emerged, involving collaboration with the School of Engineering, in the field of texture and surface reproduction.


From its humble beginnings the project is developing much momentum, while bridging the art and science divide. A unique platform for interdisciplinary exchange and dialogue has been created not only between individuals, but also between research departments and institutions.

Franziska Schenk

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Project website

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Refereed publication

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