TED fellow using nanoparticle paint

001B_NANO.jpg Kate Nichols is a painter trained in 15th century Northern Renaissance techniques. But this week she will give a presentation at TED, perhaps the most prestigious big-think technology conference. Her topic? Nanotechnology. 

It might sound bizarre, but when you listen to the story of Nichols' quest to recreate the brilliant blue iridescence of the Morpho butterfly, her scientific presentation makes perfect sense.   

Nichols learned painting as painters did in 15th century Flanders: by apprenticing under a master and learning to make her own paints. She became skilled at creating the type of complex colors only possible as light travels through thin layers of oil glaze. But she eventually found that no amount of layering could recreate the complexity she saw in the Morpho butterfly's wings. 

[More images and more about the artist after the jump]

001_NANO.jpgStudying with mathematician Judy Holdener at Kenyon College, Nichols discovered that the brilliance of the butterfly's wings did not come from chemical coloring, as is the case with paint, but from the shape of super tiny structures inside the wing.

It's called structural color, and it became Nichol's goal to incorporate it into her work.

"I realized that I would have to use architectures much smaller than those you can create with thin oil glazes in order to generate structural color effects," Nichols said.

Enter nanotechnology. Through some research of her own, Nichols realized she needed to work at the nanoscale. So she wrote an email to Paul Alivisatos, who runs a nanotechnology lab at the University of California at Berkeley (he's also director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab).

In 2008, she became the first artist-in-residence in his lab. 


Nichols was recently named a TED fellow. See her TED page here. Also check out her website to see her nano-art as well as her amazing oil paintings. 



007_NANO.jpg 1. Morpho. 18" x 7". Silver nanoparticles, silver halide emulsion, gelatin, glass microscope slides. 2009. 

The black elements in this piece are glass microscope slides coated in gelatin and a silver photographic emulsion. The yellow and the blue are silver nanoparticles. They appear to be different colors when viewed with reflected light versus transmitted light. Inserting a black slide behind one of the nanoparticle-coated slides inhibits the transmitted light, emphasizing the reflected, resulting in a blue color. Nichols likes the juxtaposition of the colorful nanoscale silver with the more familiar black and gray forms of silver.

2. Calibrate 1. 8" x 5", Silver nanoprisms, glass capillaries. 2009.

The color in this piece is due to a phenomenon called plasmon resonance. "I love thinking about plasmon resonance--likely, because I paint motion and grew up dancing," Nichols said. When light comes into contact with a metal, electrons are displaced. Because the electrons are attracted to the nuclei of the metallic atoms, the electrons fall back into their original positions only to be exiled again, over and over. This oscillatory dance is called a plasmon and we perceived it as color when the wavelength falls within the visible spectrum.


3. Mirrored lamellae 2. 3" x 3". Silver nanoparticles, silver halide emulsion, gelatin, glass microscope slides, wax. 2009. 

This piece because demonstrates best how the colors change depending on the viewer's perspective. The detail shows how it look pinks from one angle and blue from another. Nichols called it "mirrored lamella" because to create it she layered clear microscope slides on top of black slides covered with a photographic emulsion to create a mirror (she also learned Victorian mirror making techniques!). The image on the nanoparticle-coated slide reverberates through these layers, causing interesting, colorful effects. 



  1. This is great. I wonder how long it’ll take TED to put up her talk!

    Andrew Parker has a great book called Seven Deadly Colours, that deals with structural colours, amongst other things.

    It’s a fascinating topic.

  2. That– that’s pretty f-ing cool. Paul Alivisatos helped discover some of the coolest nanoparticles, quantum dots, when he worked at AT&T Bell Labs in the 80s/early 90s. I’d say he’s one of the top 20 people behind the rise of nano as a buzzword.

  3. also! I wanted to point out that the same phenomenon that produces the pretty colors above, plasmons, has been used by scientists to create some incredibly useful sensors, through the phenomon known as “Surface Plasmon Resonance.”

    Man, I friggin’ love science.

  4. The way that particles work in glass is completely different from how they work as nanomaterials, as I understand it. In any case, a friend of mine has done work on various dopants in creating color-changing glass.

  5. Does anyone know *where* she got her art training?? I went to “regular” art-school in the 80s, but I would LOVE to sign up for a classic Renaissance oil painting apprenticeship… WHERE???

    1. If you’re interested in egg tempera painting and you live in the Chicago area, I teach a class called “Renaissance Painting Techniques” at the Chicago Botanic Garden starting March 16. The emphasis is definitely on egg tempera but I can give guidance about gesso and oil glazes as well.

  6. Nichols’ nonparticle art is beautiful—amazing how color, light and motion are captured. Took a look at her web site and have to say her paintings are more breathtaking yet. Wherever she studied, she took it to the next level. Anyone know where can one see this work in the flesh?

    1. I would email her through her site. And it sounds like after TED, she’ll soon have her work in some galleries!

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