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!