Waltham lab develops the world’s ‘blackest black’ paint
SOMERVILLE — That the gummy bear was an artwork was unusual.
That the gummy bear was so black that it looked like an optical illusion was really unusual.
Welcome to the world of Singularity Black.
“Black Iron Ursa,” a painted sculpture, doesn’t reflect light, making it difficult to see its ears and paws. Because the human eye is trained to look for light, it is disorienting and somewhat painful to look at.
“Black Iron Ursa” was the brainchild of Somerville artist Jason Chase, who watched baffled visitors stare at the object in his studio on a recent Sunday afternoon.
Made from cast iron, the gummy bear was coated in Singularity Black, a carbon nanotube paint developed by Waltham-based NanoLab, Inc. The paint absorbs over 99.9 percent of light, making three-dimensional objects look two-dimensional. Chase built a colorful wooden carousel to display the bear on, making the bear’s blackness even more striking. A small glass dome covers the artwork to protect it.
“The paint is really fragile,” Chase said. “If you touch it, it’s going to flake off, kind of like when you touch a butterfly’s wings.”
The “blackest black” paint has been a point of contention in the art world since 2014, when British artist Anish Kapoor received exclusive rights to working with Vantablack , a pigment created by a British company, Surrey NanoSystems, that absorbs 99.965 percent of light.
This arrangement frustrated other artists. In response, British artist Stuart Semple created “the world’s pinkest pink” and “the world’s glitteriest glitter,” which he made available in 2016 to everyone except Kapoor. (Kapoor managed to get his hands on the pink pigment anyway and posted a photograph of it on Instagram, taunting Semple.)
Now Chase is hoping that Singularity Black will put the whole squabble to bed.
“I’m really honored to be part of the launching process,” he said. “I remember reading about Vantablack when it came out and wanting to work with it. I hope that this means the whole art world gets to move forward.”
NanoLab created Singularity Black at NASA’s request in 2011. The agency frequently sends equipment into space to measure faint stars, and they wanted a pigment that would absorb stray light to keep it from interfering with sensors. Its name was inspired by the center of a black hole, where the known laws of physics stop operating.
Carbon nanotubes excel at trapping light, so the lab combined them with a binding agent for stabilization. After the pigment is applied to an object, it has to be heated to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, which eliminates the binder and leaves the carbon nanotubes in a porous arrangement for maximum light absorption.
Colin Preston, a senior research scientist on the project, noticed that Surrey NanoSystems had developed its similar product and licensed the rights to Kapoor. (NanoLab conceived the formula for Singularity Black independently, according to Preston.)
“I was honestly kind of confused by that,” he said. “When we were done developing the pigment, we really wanted to develop our product to be commercial.”
Preston had met Chase in a Drawing in Pubs class, so he e-mailed him as soon as NanoLab had successfully developed Singularity Black into a paint.
Artists can buy Singularity Black off the shelf. They can apply the paint themselves after a tutorial from NanoLab, according to Preston. He estimated current price to be in the low to mid-hundreds of dollars for 250 milliliters to 1 liter of paint.
Colorado sculptor Sean O’Meallie said he is intrigued by the material. He said Singularity Black opens up possibilities of doing something different and challenging.
“Painting something in Singularity Black will make it harder for viewers to see a silhouette,” he said. “It might be a way of making art a little more hidden.”
However, there are limitations to how Singularity Black can be used. It can only be applied to metal surfaces, so Chase is experimenting on copper plate. He said he wants to juxtapose traditional mediums, like oil and gold leaf, with this futuristic paint.
Preston said NanoLab has already received multiple inquiries from artists interested in getting the paint. Chase said he intends to curate an art show of Singularity Black pieces as soon as there is a collection.
“I think it’ll fit really well in surrealist images,” he said. “The best thing about this paint being available to everyone is that we’ll get to push the boundaries of the art world with it.”
View “Black Iron Ursa” at Laconia Gallery on Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. 433 Harrison Ave.