Franziska Schenk

Placement at University of Birmingham

Notes from the Lab: Placement at the University of Birmingham

Posted by Franziska Schenk on 7th May 2008

Captivated by their ephemeral beauty, fragility and capacity for continuous transformation, my attention has recently turned to butterflies. A colour as dramatic, dynamic and dazzling as the metallic blue of the wings of the exotic Morpho butterfly has never been encountered in the art world. Unlike and unmatched by the chemical pigments of the artist’s palette, this oscillating colour is created by transparent, colourless structures which, like prisms, diffract and reflect light.

However, with the rapid advances in nano-science and technology at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are beginning to rival nature’s ingenious ways of manipulating the flow of light. Scientific research into the astonishing nano-scale architectures found on butterfly wings capable of producing such eye-catching optical effects, has led to the development and manufacture of innovative light interference ‘pigments’. The varied strategies evolved by butterflies over thousand of years to create, adjust and fine-tune iridescence suggest that the development of artistic materials and working methods reproducing such an effect, would be a major advance.

With this in mind, my residency at the University of Birmingham has followed on seamlessly from a previous closely related project, involving collaboration with Prof Andrew Parker at the Natural History Museum. Working across the Schools of Bioscience and Physics, I have been able to persevere with my investigation into the complex mechanisms associated with iridescent colour production in butterflies, initially arriving at a series of small-scale preparatory works. Based on these, the intention is to develop a series of inter-related, large-scale, textured paintings that like certain butterflies change in colour and pattern, depending on the light and movements of the viewer.

To aid colour-matching via spectrometry Dr Mark Colclough (School of Physics) initiated a student project, called ‘The Iridescent Properties of Butterflies and Paints’. In response Katie Lane and Andrew Emms, the two eager undergraduate students who chose to undertake the topic, devised an experimental apparatus and methods with a view to measure and pinpoint this elusive type of colour by examining butterfly wings and the paints newly-developed by me. The results of their investigations have facilitated much dialogue between our respective disciplines and I have, with both their help, branched out and ventured further into relatively new territory – the world of spectrometry. The Physics department and I are very keen to repeat the experience next academic year.

In addition, Dr Norman Day from Biosciences, a life-long enthusiastic collector and photographer of tropical butterflies, has perhaps inevitably become much engaged in the subject and has made significant contributions both in terms of ideas development and practical support. More recently further exciting opportunities have emerged, involving collaboration with Dr Geoffrey Dolman from the School of Engineering, in the field of texture and surface reproduction. In butterflies the most iridescent colour effect is not only controlled by colour-inducing sub-microscopic structures, but also via a fine-tuning of the surface texture.

From its humble beginnings the project is developing much momentum, while bridging the art and science divide. In addition, a unique platform for interdisciplinary exchange and dialogue has been created not only between individuals, but also between research departments and universities, hence generating much scope for sustained cross-fertilisation and knowledge transfer. We are currently in the process of exploring options to attract further funding in the hope to extend, what is proving to be, a mutually beneficial relationship.