The Artist Who Imitated Natural Iridescence In Painting
The desire to faithfully reproduce some of the most complex colors of nature led Franziska Schenk to change the history of painting.
Efforts to imitate the colors of nature have historically been an engine of creativity. Let’s recall the invention of purple of Tyrian, for example, that mixed macerated enzymes with small shells and became high fashion among the Roman governors, perhaps because they appeared to be dressed-up as amethysts. Or Newton’s attempt to imitate/explain the brilliant plumage of peacocks with a prism that divided light into colors. Humans have always sought to trap that which shines.
German painter Franziska Schenk however, perhaps for the first time in art history, attempted to faithfully recreate the iridescence of the most extravagant creatures of the natural world (such as birds, fish and insects) in painting, and to not content herself with the already existent colors. But why not just take photographs? Because the desire provoked by the brilliance is not just to capture it but to also understand what makes it such, why does that which shines shine?
Schenk understood the phenomenon of iridescence thanks to some residences with scientists, who explained to her the fascinating theory of the structural colors of Thomas Young, the physicist who, at the end of the 19th century, was finally able to explain how the nature of rays of light on small transparent film produces iridescence. This phenomenon explains, for example, the rainbow seen in soap bubbles, in water with oil and in so many animals on the planet. Later, in a British aquarium, the painter studied those cuttlefish that look like squids and which use cells called chromatophores to imitate thousands of colors and camouflage themselves in their surroundings.
Her first attempts were enormous portraits of threatening fish called groupers. But as much as she tried to include the bright gold background she was unable to find a yellow that was not “dull.” “The vivid golden and more familiar silver beams of iridescence generated by many fish, on the other hand, appear identical to the actual precious metal.” She couldn’t find any paint that would give the same shimmery look that fascinated her. “I was frustrated,” she recalls. “I wanted to use the same technology as the fish.”
But the process of not only understanding but also imitating the iridescence of nature on a canvas led her to take up residence at the Natural History Museum in London and, three years later, to the chemical laboratories to measure the optical properties of her work. The results are as spectacular as one might imagine.
What Schenk did, in short, was to borrow the tricks of nature to “construct” colors in the same way, layer by layer. In 2013 she reproduced the orange underside of the tamamushi or Japanese jewel bug, the green of its shell and its violet lines, and compared it with the real insect’s measures of reflection.
No photograph has the shine or the sparkle of Schenk’s paintings, and which furthermore invite the viewer to consider the iridescence and the process that her paintings entail, which is a fascinating mental exercise. It is enough just to see her butterflies.
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