Back to Black

Yesterday when our neighbours called around kindly bearing Simnel cake and duck eggs, we started talking about ‘Vantablack’, the so-called ‘new pigment’ that’s been in the headlines. Artists, myself included, have been ranting at the news as reported that Anish Kapoor had ‘purchased’ the exclusive rights to it. Now why the fuck should any artist, no matter how esteemed or puffed up by the media (and themselves) be allowed to ‘own’ a colour? It seemed like another manifestation of a grabby culture in which individuals and organisations with enough money and clout, snaffle up anything that might be profited from. The headlines have been pretty tacky, volatile and occasionally grammatically clumsy.

ArtNet News: Anish Kapoor angers artists by seizing exclusive rights to ‘blackest black’ pigment.

The Guardian: Can an Artist ever really own a colour?

Daily Mail: Artists at war after top sculptor is given exclusive rights to the purest black paint ever which is used on stealth jets.

My neighbour John wrote to me this morning:

John Warren: We have been doing more reading about the “new black” its a long way from being available as a paint. The nano-tubes have to be fixed on a surface in the lab, so sections of it could be made to fit a piece of art.

Clive: Ah ha! So presumably it would be easy to apply a flat surface, such as a painting with clearly defined areas of black.


But could it be made to adhere to a complex three dimensional form, such as a fragile found object like this root…


… or would that object first need to be rendered with a 3-D printer into something more physically robust?

John: Joe reckons that would be possible. There is talk about covering spy planes. However, it fails if you touch it as the orientation of the nano-tubes is changed

Clive: So the finish is incredibly delicate. Not much good if the brush of a hand or a gust of wind can realign and ruin the arrangement… and thus the visual effectiveness… of the nano-tubes. It sounds not so much a new pigment as an optical effect requiring very specific conditions. Looks like I’m going to have to stick with paint.

Interestingly, the dense blacks of my last exhibition were essentially an optical effect. I painted the backgrounds of the artworks with black gouache. The gouache paint dries matt, reflecting light in such a way as to emphasise its less-than-black characteristics. Even the highest quality black gouache tends to appear charcoal grey in most light conditions. But when I put the images under glass, the black becomes incredibly rich and deep, a sort of polished obsidian much blacker in appearance than when viewed without the glass.

On closer examination, though phrases like ‘bought the exclusive rights to’ have been much bandied about in relation to Kapoor’s acquisition, the reality seems to be a publicity stunt by the makers of ‘Vantablack’, invented to associate their product with a ‘name’, though the artist has clearly been complicit.


Above: Vantablack applied to crumpled aluminium foil to demonstrate its matt, ‘flattening’ qualities.

So at this point Vantablack is not a paint, and needs to be affixed to surfaces in laboratory conditions. Nevertheless, despite the fact that this discovery is undoubtedly exciting for artists everywhere, its much-trumpeted announcement in the press, couched in the language and values of a celebrity-culture obsessed with ‘exclusivity’… whatever that is… diminishes the idea of a ‘new black’ in my eyes. I would have been much more excited by news that the makers had offered to work with art students, than be assaulted with yet more evidence of society’s perceived attachment to the frankly tacky claims of ownership from an artist who might be expected to know better. While it comes as no surprise that Kapoor has allowed himself to be associated with Vantablack in this way, it doesn’t make me think highly of him.

I recently spent a few days at Southampton Solent School of Art, Design and Fashion, invited by the artist Jonny Hannah… who is a tutor there… to talk to students about my work. I was massively impressed by the school and its staff, and by the fantastic invention and energy of Director, Peter Lloyd. Peter and his associates have created innovative opportunities for students, such as the award-winning Re:So retail space, located in a busy Southampton shopping centre, which is stocked, managed and staffed by students who for the most part make all the products offered. I visited the shop with Peter Lloyd and my socks were blown off by the experience.


At Southampton all efforts are being made to build opportunities for the next generation of artists and designers, rather than creating an impression, like Anish Kapoor and the makers of Vantablack, of doors slamming loudly in their faces!

Bravo/Brava Southampton Solent!

11 thoughts on “Back to Black

  1. “I see a red door and I want it painted black… colours anymore, I want them to turn black”…la la la la…….sadly, Mr Kapoor’s advertising doodah merely reminded of that good old Rolling Stones song! I’ve got quite a lot of black gouache myself…and some black acrylic…and some black ink….am I missing something?? 🙂 Good for Southampton/Solent….. when I was at art school it was considered beyond the pale to ask for advice as to how you might try to make a living of sorts out of your work!

  2. The fact that there could even be a new black somewhat flummoxed me. Shows just what an amateur I am. But we are all talking about Vantablack so what a publicity stunt. Meanwhile all credit to Southampton for that retail concept. Brilliant idea to help students think commercially.

    • Thank you, Rebecca. The video was really helpful. The density of the black was really evident on the mask.

      I think that John’s reference to his son Joe, was probably by way of shorthand re the necessity of re-creating the found object in a more robust material via a 3-D printer, because he knows Joe and I have been discussing 3-D printing for some time. Joe has experience of making things by that technique, and he’s been explaining it to me.

      So many things to explore, such little time!!!

  3. That was quite a rant! But I agree, how can anyone own a colour? Interesting that both Anish Kapoor and the makers of Vantablack refuse to make any statement. Also they say he was given the exclusive rights, ” given”? Surely not. There is a lot of money involved here I have no doubt. What a silly man. He hasn’t done himself any favours with this action, other than negative publicity of course. Best to be in the real world like you have shown us at Southampton Solent, where genuine people help future generations, and don’t keep things to themselves. Bravo, Clive!

    • All credit to Southampton Solent, and the wonderful people who work there. The place was buzzing with energy. It was a lovely experience for me to visit the school.

      Given the recognition Anish Kapoor enjoys, he should be mindful to stay grounded in the real world, and not allow himself to be swayed by sycophants or deluded by his success. It’s not attractive, this willingness to be seen as someone so great as to embrace privileges not granted to others.

      I think of Easton Lachapelle, who did a good thing, and then gave away the designs so that others could benefit.

  4. WOW !!!
    This is a great post.

    I should not be here as I have lots and lots of work to do, but I could not resist the “call to arms”. If I was ever tempted by any Anish Kapoor work, this is the end of it.

    But apart from the moral issue, I do not really see the appeal of a paint that creates a black void when applied. It could be useful for disguising spy planes, of course, but for creating beauty???

    And Bravo/Brava for you and all your artist friends who share with all of us!

    • Peter and I have been working over the holiday. But like you we have enjoyed some breaks.

      Great success brings great responsibility. We all have to consider what we can put back in. But it seems some people just like to take out. It’s not pleasant to watch.

      Hope your Easter has been good, Maria, and not ALL work.

      Love from Wales
      C xxx

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