Inside the colour-making factory

What science goes into making new pigments?
22 January 2019

Interview with 

Stuart Semple, Artist


What sorts of science go into creating all new pigments and what can they be used for. From the blackest black paint to the pinkest pink, Georgia Mills spoke to artist Stuart Semple, who has something of a magic factory when it comes to paint...

Stuart - I don't know where you start. It's a bit like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory in there. We've got paints that emit more light than any other paint. The pinkest pink that ever pinked to the blackest black you've ever painted with... things that change colour, things that compost, all sorts of stuff!

Georgia - I don't know where to start! How about you told me about your light emitting paint, your glowing paint…

Stuart - Yeah. We call it “Lit” and it's basically a similar sort of technology that you probably had on your bedroom ceiling as a kid where stars glowed. But ours is turned up to 12 on the dial, if you like. It goes for twelve hours, it's so bright, even in daylight it’s emitting light.

Georgia - Well I remember those stars, they were dim after half an hour…

Stuart - They were a bit rubbish, weren’t they.

Georgia - How have you managed this?

Stuart - Basically, we used different earth activators, so these are naturally occurring elements and metals, that absorb energy and then chuck it out again as light. But we found by combining different ones, they would emit different frequencies of light at different times. In essence, this mixture kind of self charges itself and so has a really bright initial glow and then an afterglow that just seems to go on almost indefinitely.

Georgia - And how did you go about finding these?

Stuart - Nowadays I actually have a forensic scientist in my studio, Jemima, who's absolutely awesome. She does a lot of research, a lot of development, a lot of sourcing and lot of playing. And we finally got a mix that played well together, where the different wavelengths of energy affected each other and made it work.

Georgia - I've got to say I haven't seen many glowing paintings. What kind of things does this one get used for?

Stuart - You wouldn't believe the things that people are using it for... One guy, the other day, mixed it in varnish and painted the whole floor of his house. We've had developing countries, interestingly, using it on road markings, and just artists making awesome sculptures and paintings…  All sorts of stuff.

Georgia - Now to go to the other end of the spectrum, you mentioned you have the blackest black…

Stuart - Yeah we do.

Georgia - How? 

Stuart - Where do you start? Let me start with the story of how and why I made the blackest black... About two years ago, a lab grew a forest of nanoparticles, these nanotubes, on surfaces and it trapped almost all light. It was absolutely amazing and the world was really excited - Ninety nine percent of light? Unbelievable. They did an exclusive deal with an artist called Anish Kapoor so only he could use it in his art and everyone was mortally offended and really annoyed.

I made the world's pinkest pink and I put it on my website and I said any artist can use the pinkest pink, as long as they're not Anish Kapoor. And I had to agree to a legal disclaimer that they weren't him or they weren't gonna share it with him. Anyway after I did that, everybody started writing into me and Anish actually got the pink and put it on his Instagram - a whole other story - and everyone's saying “you must make a black that’s better than his black!”.  Here we are, two years later, we made Black 2 which was an awesome matte black.

But at that time, we had to use pigments that existed. And the problem with those is almost every black pigment, carbon’s the most popular one, reflects some kind of light. If you think for a lump of coal or charcoal, it reflects light, it's shiny. We wanted something that would absorb light. So we had to add additives to it that we borrowed from the cosmetics industry to mattify it, to dull it down to stop that light reflection from the front.

Unfortunately, when you have mattifiers to black paint, it adds whiteness so you start to get into tones of grey which is actually not what you want to. So since then we were working on black three and we finally finished it about a week ago after sending a thousand out to beta testers around the world. The way we approach now is we collaborated with a lab in Dallas who actually custom grew a pigment for us which is essentially a black pigment that's grown on a nano sized ceramic microsphere. So we have a matte black pigment which is amazing.

Georgia - Is this the better at absorbing light that it doesn't release as much as the other black?

Stuart - Absolutely, so it is not reflective it has like zero reflectance. The next thing we have to do is mix it into a paint which is the other side of this innovation. We've created an acrylic polymer to hold this stuff that has more bonds available than any other acrylic polymer which means we can supercharge it with pigments. What that means is in the visible light spectrum we're seeing between 98 and 99 percent of light absorption which, in English, means you get insanely weird looking black stuff. If you paint it on 3D things they look 2D like silhouettes. It's bizarre.

Georgia - Oh wow. What kinds of things do you think it could be used for and will you let that other artist use it?

Stuart - No, he can't have it unless he apologises and gives me my three pound ninety nine back for the pink. I have no idea what people are gonna use it for, so many people are asking, I know black is used in photography studios and some of the greatest artists around the world are using it but I don't know it's useful in telescopes. It's useful in paintings. I mean the blackest black… there’s so much you can make with it.

Georgia - Also, and just very very briefly, what's next?

Stuart -  Next, we created a eucalyptus based, fully compostable, glitter which is absolutely awesome and we are looking to take that technology into acrylic paint so that we can make plant based, eco-friendly, robust acrylic paints.


Add a comment