The iridescent, silvery-blue hues seen on peacock feathers and butterfly wings aren't like most colors; they are created from nanoparticles that are smaller than wavelengths of visible light. And this "structural color" is the inspiration behind artist Kate Nichols's latest work, which marries art with science.
Nichols has been working closely with color for over a decade. While taking a break from her undergrad studies at Kenyon College in 2002, she worked as an apprentice under San Francisco artist Will Wilson. There she learned to mix her own pigments using linseed oil, lead oxide, and mastic resin. She also developed a fascination with the wings of the morpho butterfly. The creature's opalescent, blue-green shade was something she knew she wouldn't be able to recreate by simply mixing together ingredients—for that she would need to develop special nanoparticles in a lab.
Most colors we see come from pigments. Pigments absorb specific bandwidths of light based on their chemical composition, and whatever light is not absorbed is then reflected as what we perceive to be a certain color. The structural color that can be found in beetle casings, fish scales, and morpho butterfly wings are instead the product of minuscule particles. These nanoscale structures slow down light waves and scatter them around, making a color that’s subject to the particles' shape, size, position, and angle in relation to the observer and light source, as Nautilus explains.
Determined to capture this type of color in her art, Nichols got in touch with UC-Berkeley physicist Paul Alivisatos. He was so taken with the concept that he invited her to come work with the school’s nanotechnology research group as an artist-in-residence. After a lot of trial and error, Nichols finally found a way to recreate the look she was after. By developing soccer ball–shaped nanoparticles and suspending them in organic solvents, she discovered she could get them to stick to glass. Her most recent art series Figments consists of small glass triangles connected by a hinge. Depending on where the viewer stands, the glass’s iridescent coating flickers like a morpho butterfly’s wing in the sun. For a look at her work and process, check out the video from Nautilus below.