Franziska Schenk

Placement at University of Birmingham

Capturing nature’s fluctuating colours on canvas

For centuries artists and natural scientists have been fascinated by the iridescent colours displayed in the natural world. Although iridescence is best known via the dazzling hues of hummingbirds and the metallic blue of the Morpho butterfly, it occurs across a range of animal groups from beetles, fish to jellyfish. These changeable hues are not produced by pigments but are created by complex physical structures interplaying with light to create striking effects. Recent scientific studies have greatly increased our understanding of these microscopic architectures.

Until now artists have tried in vain to capture these 'natural jewels'. Such representations were never perfect, because colours of this type, by their very nature, defy our best efforts at visual representation. Now, for the first time, scientific developments in the production of commercial 'pigment' technology, offer artists the wonderful, yet challenging, potential opportunity to accurately depict iridescence. However, these ‘pigments’ (developed with the car, cosmetic and plastic industries in mind) currently remain restricted to industrial usage. The major drawback, which seriously restricts and impedes their advancement in art, is that they do not adhere to colour theory as applied in painting.

Franziska Schenk, artist in residence at the Schools of Bioscience and Physics at the University of Birmingham, is attempting to overcome this incompatibility by studying the ingenious ways in which a wide range of iridescent effects are created in the animal world. As iridescent ‘pigments’ mirror Nature’s design, biomimetics can offer vital clues on how to convert these novel materials to the painter’s palette. The current research builds on related projects, namely an Arts Council funded residency and show at the National Marine Aquarium at Plymouth (2004-5), and a recent AHRC-funded art and science project. The latter involved a residency at the Natural History Museum in London and collaboration with Professor Andrew Parker, the Museum’s leading expert on iridescence in the natural world.

Expanding on work inspired by the coelacanth, chameleon and cuttlefish, Franziska has now turned her attention to butterflies. Captivated by their ephemeral beauty, fragility and capacity for continuous change, she is developing paintings that oscillate in colour, depending on the light and movement of the viewer. Having worked on adapting colour-shift technology from its inception (circa 2000), gradual emergence and now rapid expansion, the new series marks a further stage in her quest to arrive at 'chameleonesque' paintings.

About Franziska 

Franziska Schenk (BA Art Ed, BA Hons and MA Fine Art) is an artist and lecturer in Fine Art at Birmingham City University. Exhibitions with particular relevance to Interact include: ‘Vibrant 2’ (2006) which formed part of the ‘Colour and Chemistry’ project initiated by Sherborne House, ‘Mantle of Many Colours’ at the National Marine Aquarium Plymouth (2004-5) and ‘Times of Our Lives: Beginnings’ at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester (2000). Other work has been included in group shows across England and in Germany. Awards in support of this research have been received from the Arts Council of England, AHRC and BCU.

See also:

Note: Franziska will present her research at International Conference on the Arts in Society (28-31 July 08) and at Colour in Art, Design and Nature at James Maxwell Centre, Edinburgh (24 Oct 08).