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One Artist Has a Monopoly on the World’s Blackest Black Pigment

Artists are up in arms over Anish Kapoor’s exclusive rights to “vantablack”

(Surrey Nanosystems via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Finding just the right color to use can be maddening. For centuries, artists have fought to find the richest reds, deepest blues and most vibrant yellows to bring their works to life. Now, artists are calling foul as one of their own has been given the exclusive right to use the blackest black pigment ever created.

“It's blacker than anything you can imagine," artist Anish Kapoor, who recently acquired the rights to use the pigment “vantablack” in art, told the BBC in 2014. “It's so black you almost can't see it. It has a kind of unreal quality."

There is no darker color known than vantablack. Developed by a British company Surrey NanoSystems to use for military equipment like satellites and stealth jets, vantablack absorbs 99.96 percent of all light and can make the crinkliest piece of aluminum foil look like a flat surface. Vantablack isn’t a paint, though: it’s actually made by growing carbon nanotubes, which are ten-thousandth of the width of a human hair, Paula Cocozza reported for the Guardian in 2014.

"We grow the tubes like a field of carbon grass,” Surrey NanoSystem’s chief technical officer Ben Jensen told Cocozza at the time. “The tubes are spaced apart. When a light particle hits the material, it gets between the tubes and bounces around, is absorbed and converted to heat. Light goes in, but it can't get back out."

It makes sense that this material would be prized by the military, but the pigment could lead to some fascinating artworks, as well. Throughout his career, Kapoor has used color to create optical illusions, like painting sculptures such an intense shade of blue that it tricks your eyes into thinking they are flat surfaces. Sure enough, soon after Surrey NanoSystems revealed vantablack to the public, Kapoor began working it into his artworks, Jonathan Jones writes for the Guardian.

“I've been working in this area for the last 30 years or so with all kinds of materials but conventional materials, and here's one that does something completely different," Kapoor told BBC Radio 4 in 2014. “I've always been drawn to rather exotic materials."

When Kapoor’s deal with Surrey NanoSystems went public, it enraged artists around the world. Many took to social media to protest Kapoor’s exclusive right to use vantablack, with some calling it immoral, Henri Neuendorf writes for artnet News.

“I've never heard of an artist monopolizing a material,” painter Christian Furr tells Charlotte Griffiths and Ned Donovan for the Daily Mail. “Using pure black in an artwork grounds it."

This is the latest in a long history of artists fighting over the rights to use a certain color. For centuries, European artists paid handsome prices for lapis lazuli, a vivid blue pigment made from a mineral that is only found in Afghanistan. During the 18th century, painters like Benjamin West and Joshua Reynolds paid exorbitant fees to use a deep black paint called “Titian’s shade” that was supposedly the Renaissance painter’s secret, though was eventually revealed to be a con artist's trick, Jones writes. Most recently, in 1960 the French artist Yves Klein patented a deep blue called “International Klein Blue,” which the Blue Man Group uses (or at least slathers on the closest recreation of it) for performances.

This case is a little different, however. Unlike Klein, Kapoor didn’t invent vantablack, not to mention that the pigment has unique properties that differentiates it from normal paint.

“This black is like dynamite in the art world,” Furr tells Griffiths and Donovan. “We should be able to use it. It isn't right that it belongs to one man."

So far, Kapoor and Surrey NanoSystems have declined to comment on the deal.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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