TED fellow using nanoparticle paint

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. 



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.