For most of us, paint colors are something we think about only when we’re engaged in home improvement projects, or when we’re judging renovations made by other people on television. For artists however, selecting the right color of paint can make an enormous difference in the way that their work is perceived, and indeed valued by their patrons. In the past, naturally-occurring materials like gold and gemstones were used to create the most costly pigments. Today however, there is a major battle raging right now over the creation of technologically advanced black paint.
Now, we’re not talking any ordinary, ho-hum, Henry Ford you-can-have-any-color-Model-T-you-want-so-long-as-it’s black, black. Rather, this is a black which is unlike anything you’ve seen before: one that acts in much the same way as a black hole does in space, sucking all light into it, and creating what to the human eye appears to be a two-dimensional surface. In recent years, the search for blacker-than-black paint has become something of a grail quest in the world of Contemporary Art.
Back in 2014, a British tech company called Surrey NanoSystems came up with a carbon nanotube-based fabric, whose color was described as “the new black to end all blacks.” Called “Vantablack”, its creators originally intended for it to be used as a material with military and aerospace applications. As you can see here, an object covered in Vantablack seems to virtually disappear, since the surface of the treated object reflects almost no light whatsoever.
In 2016, sculptor Anish Kapoor signed an exclusive deal with the creators of Vantablack, becoming the sole artist in the world permitted to use Vantablack in his work. This caused an uproar in the Contemporary Art community, which wanted to gain access to this blacker-than-black substance. A hashtag campaign was undertaken on social media called “#ShareTheBlack”, trying to convince Vantablack’s manufacturers to allow wider use of the material. Ultimately, this descended into the childishness that one has come to expect from social media.
Fortunately for the Contemporary Art world, despite its regular criticism of capitalism in an effort to bite the hand that feeds it, free-market competition has come to the rescue. For now an American company, NanoLab, Inc., has come up with its own version of carbon nanotube black, called “Singularity Black” – and unlike Vantablack, it will be available to anyone to use. On its website, NanoLab describes how the pigment works, which I won’t even attempt to explain it to you because I don’t fully understand it myself. Those of you who have science backgrounds will no doubt appreciate the technology at work here, whereas for my part, being a giant nerd, I appreciate the fact that it was most likely named “Singularity” for reasons related to Star Trek.
While the technology involved in the creation of these new pigments is new, this is not the first time that the art world has obsessed over the production of a particular paint color. If you’ve studied any art history, then you know that purple was highly prized by the Ancients: particularly that which came from Phoenicia, where there was an entire industry dedicated to the creation of what was known as “Tyrian Purple” from the labor-intensive processing of a particular species of sea snail. It was so costly and taxed so heavily under sumptuary laws, that its use was normally reserved to monarchs. One of my favorite objects in art history featuring this pigment is the magnificent Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a 6th Century illuminated Book of the Gospels that was created for the Byzantine Emperors.
Later on, the color blue came to hold enormous importance in Western art, from the Middle Ages up through the Baroque era. Although there were many ways to obtain blue from readily available sources such as indigo plants, the most prized and costly type of blue was typically called “aquamarine”. It was made from ground-up lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone that had to be imported to Europe, primarily from present-day Afghanistan. Aquamarine was so expensive to produce, that many archives still preserve the written contracts between patrons and artists executed during these centuries, specifying the amount, quality, and cost of the highly prized blue pigment to be used in different parts of a particular commission.
The quest for the perfect blue made works such as Philippe de Champaigne’s “Jesus Among The Doctors” (1648), shown below, very expensive to produce. Notice how the blue mantle of the Virgin Mary is a very different hue than the blue of the sky behind her, which would have been painted using a less costly pigment. If you see an Old Master painting like this, where there are figures dressed in blue, and the blue garments seem to glow and stand out from the other blues in the picture, it’s almost certainly a lapis lazuli-based blue paint that you’re looking at.
With the arrival of the Modern Age, we also arrive at the color dominance of black. If purple was the most prized pigment of the Romans and Byzantines, and costly blue helped to define Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque art, then without question black is the single most important color in Modern and Contemporary Art. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the more prominent movements in art history over the last century have relied heavily upon black paint. For example, Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica” (1937) – arguably the most important painting in all of 20th century Art – is essentially a monochromatic painting, dominated by the color black.
Certainly Modern and Contemporary artists have looked to other colors as well, and individual artists are often associated with their use – both Marc Chagall and David Hockney loved blue, for example, albeit very different shades of it. But whether you examine the work of important artists painting in the styles of Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, or Pop Art, they’re all relying heavily on the use of the color black – as these examples show:
As artists begin to play with these new, incredibly dense blacks, which are unlike any black pigment in the history of art up to now, we are left with some tantalizing questions. Which is better, Vantablack or Singularity Black? What new and interesting works of art will we see emerge from the use of this previously unknown form of black paint? How will these new, technologically advanced pigments hold up over time? Will they continue to grab the eye, centuries from now, in the way that say, a Renaissance painting featuring blues made from lapis lazuli still does? Or will they prove to be little more than a fad, with a limited impact on art history?
Only time will tell.