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A Short History of Vantablack: the Darkest Color on Earth

Meet Vantablack. It’s the kvltest color; the spookiest shade; the most bituminous, byronic black there is, and it absorbs nearly all visible light—that’s pretty goth. 99.96% is the figure usually cited, but unless the light source is poised at exactly 90º to the Vantablacked surface, it’s more like 96.4%. Perhaps that’s splitting hairs, but then it is a terribly svelte substance—just a few hundred nanometers thick. Like the most flattering of fashion, it works by tricking the eye, flattening any sense of depth, and sucking you in. Though if you’re dreaming of actually incorporating it into your look, don’t—the material is wildly toxic.

Vantablack becomes even more seductive when you consider the etymological transition of the word “black,” from the Proto-Indo European bhleg, to burn or flash or shine, through to Proto-Germanic’s blakaz, or burnt. But this pigment has little connection to any hue or texture naturally occurring on Earth, and actually isn’t so much a color as it is a substance or coating. Invented in 2014 by UK manufacturers Surrey NanoSystems (SNS), its name (the acronym unspools to

“Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays”) speaks to its composition of carbon nanotubes. The original idea was to help hide satellites and stealth fighter jets—a realization of that sci-fi dream of a cloaking device—but its strength and conductivity mean that it’s now being used in telescopes, touchscreens, and numerous other aerospace applications.

People walk outside a pavilion, designed by British architect Asif Khan and built by Hyundai, in Pyeonchang, the host location of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games; the building is sprayed on the outside with Vantablack, the darkest chemical substance on Earth. Photo by Sergei Bobylev/TASS via Getty Images.

It’s hard to keep a beast like this leashed to a single post, though: it was used in a Lynx marketing campaign for a body spray in 2015, while at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Canada might have had their red door, but designer Asif Khan took a whole pavilion and spray painted it black, to stunning effect.

British sculptor and consummate void enthusiast Anish Kapoor may be the one to credit with really putting Vantablack on the map, though. Speaking to Artforum in 2015, he compared it to Malevich’s black square (which was recently revealed to put the white supremacy in Suprematism), saying that “to make new art, you have to make new space.” Unfortunately, he’s the only one, having finagled exclusive rights to use Vantablack in artwork, a move that has enraged other artists. (Yves Klein infamously did it before him with his no-signal hue International Klein Blue, but the difference was that the artist developed the pigment himself.)

Disgruntled painter Stuart Semple responded by creating what he called the Pinkest Pink, legally available for £3.99 on his website to any and everyone except Kapoor. Feeling petty, Kapoor managed to get a hold of it anyway, sharing, two days before Christmas in 2016, an Instagram snap of his middle finger dipped in Semple’s pigment, only to get absolutely savaged in the comments.

Technically, there might be an even more powerful material on the horizon: a nanomaterial which absorbs close to 100% of visible light and can transform it into any color at all, or even into heat. Fittingly for something invented in Saudi Arabia, it swaps out the carbon nanotubes with gold. The catalyst for this technology was rather more alabaster, with researchers getting inspired by the ultrathin, ultrabright shells of some extremely ghostly white Southeast Asian beetles. The bugs have in turn inspired a new material even whiter than Rachel Dolezal. But no one’s doing much with any of these new technologies, yet, so the field’s wide-open, artists. Bella Lugosi might be dead, but long live Vantablack.

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