• 1. Header Art of Iridescence
  • 2. Header The Art of Iridescence
  • 3. Header The Art of Iridescence 2
  • 4. Header the Art of Iridescence
  • 5. Header The Art of Iridescence

The Art of Iridescence

Iridescent Colour: From Nature to the Painter's Palette

Morphoheader1 The same painting lit from different angles

For centuries artists and scientists alike have been fascinated by the iridescent colours displayed in the natural world. However, colour as dazzling as the metallic-like hues of tropical birds, beetles, fish and butterflies has never been encountered in the art world. Unlike and unmatched by the chemical pigments of the artist's palette, these oscillating rainbow hues are created by transparent, colourless nano- structures which, like prisms, refract and reflect light. Thus making spectral colours visible via the optical phenomenon of light interference.

Until now artists have tried in vain to capture these 'natural jewels'. Now, for the first time, scientific advancements in the production of commercial 'pigment' technology, offer artists the exiting, yet challenging, potential opportunity to accurately depict iridescence. However, these ‘pigments’ (developed with the car and cosmetic industries in mind) currently remain mainly restricted to industrial usage. The major drawback, which seriously impedes their advancement in art, is that they do not adhere to the rules of easle painting.


But, as nature inspired the technology, an exploration of natural phenomena can best inform how to overcome this hurdle. Thus, by adopting a biomimetic approach, the artist Franziska Schenk has - after year's of painstaking research both in the studio and the lab - succeeded in converting these materials to the painter's palette.

Discover more about the vividly bright iridescent hues that the white looking powder in this jar can give rise to.

The artist Franziska Schenk demonstrates how iridescent colour effects of butterflies can be simulated in painting.


The aim of this Arts Council funded project was to develop and deliver an extended solo exhibition, comprising of existing and new work. The resulting themed exhibition (launched as part of the British Science Festival 2010) marks the latest stage in Schenk's ongoing guest to introduce change, transience and an evolutionary element into painting - traditionally a stationary medium.


Inspired by the iridescent colours adorning insect wings, the artist persevered in her sustained attempt to adapt and adopt revolutionary industrial colour-shifting nanoparticles - in order to arrive at 'chameleonesque' paintings.

And, indeed, with the rare moth Erebus obsucra as exemplar, and evolutionary developmental biology as inspiration, Schenk captured the insect's ever-evolving iridescent hues - for the first time on canvas.


The desired effect is achieved, the resulting interrelated paintings fluctuate in perceived colour, depending on the light variation and viewing angle.



Mirroring fundamental natural principles that govern the evolution of colour and pattern (such as symmetry, repetition and modularity), an original painting was used as the template from which to develop all further works/ versions. Thus, while different in appearance, all paintings of the Erebus obscura series are, in fact, modified multiples of the original.


To mark the long-standing collaboration not just between individuals, but also institutions, the resulting solo show was showcased across two venues, namely the Rotunda (University of Birmingham) and the School of Art (Birmingham City University). In conjunction, a series of hands-on masterclasses, public lectures and 'meet the artist' sessions was delivered at both venues.

The exhibition has since been shown in Shrewsbury (Darwin's birthplace) - as part of the city's annual Darwin Festival (2011). The event was accompanied by a creative workshop aimed at the general public.



The Art of Iridescence: Darwin Festival 2011


Another change to see the exhibition at the Old Infirmary, Shropshire Wildlife Trust, Shrewsbury, 21 Feb - 31 March.

Experience 'The Art of Iridescence' in the atmospheric setting of the Old Infirmary - a 900 year-old building originally part of Shrewsbury Abbey. A wholly appropriate venue for artwork created in praise of nature.

The Art of Iridescence: British Science Festival 2010


Solo show at the Rotunda (UoB) and School of Art (BCU), 07-24 Sept.

Mimicking iridescent structures of butterflies, Schenk has adapted revolutionary colour-shifting nanoparticles to inject a dynamic dimension into painting. With iridescent eyespots as the leitmotiv, the artist explores novel bio-inspired effects of colour change.


Masterclasses and Workshops

25 Feb 11

The Art of Iridescence. Masterclass in conjunction with Darwin Festival 2011, Old Infirmary, Shropshire Wildlife Trust, Shrewsbury.

Participants of all ages were introduced to novel iridescent paints and associated working methods; together with the underlying optical principles.


29 June 10

06 July 10

03 Dec 10

Living Jewels in Art. Collograph Printing with iridescent medium. Series of 'Aim Higher' Masterclasses. School of Art Bournville, Birmingham.

A-level art students from CTC Kingshurst Academie, Future First Community Venture and Cockshut Hill Technology College had the opportunity to learn about, and experiment with, latest iridescent colour technology.



15 Sept 10
The Art and Science of Iridescence, public lecture, Birmingham City University, School of Art, Margaret Street, 17:30 - 18:30
17 Sept 10
The Art and Science of Iridescence, public lecture, University of Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, (formed part of the 'Local Innovations with Global Impact' event), 14:00 - 16:00.
18 Sept 10
Meet the Artist, guided tour, Birmingham City University, School of Art, Margaret Street, 14:00 - 14:30
19 Sept 10
Meet the Artist, guided tour, University of Birmingham, Rotunda, Aston Webb Building, 11:30 - 12:00
19 Sept 10
Meet the Artist, guided tour, Birmingham City University, School of Art, Margaret Street, 14:00 - 14:30

Featured Talk: The Art and Science of Iridescence - 15 Sept 2010


Presentation by artist and researcher Franziska Schenk


17 September 2010, 14.00 - 16.00

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham


An Arts Council funded project, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham


Exclusive to nature for millions of years, the rainbow colours of iridescence best known in exotic birds and butterflies are only now being introduced to art. Having worked on adapting latest bio-inspired iridescent nanoparticles from their inception, the artist traces her efforts in overcoming the many inherent challenges. With iridescent insect eyespots as example, she demonstrates how Darwinian ideas can be explored to dramatic artistic effect.


In the process, this talk (and accompanying guided tour) furnishes participants with an increased understanding of the scientific and aesthetic principles governing iridescence.

Refereed Article


About the cover: Franziska Schenk, Iridescence on the Wing, Iridescent medium on board, A4 size, 2008. (© F. Schenk) The painting attempts to capture the intricacy and beauty revealed when observing an iridescent butterfly wing under the light microscope.

Download pdf 1 || Download pdf 2

Go to top