Brightest colours ever created on display for first time: Naturally Brilliant Colour exhibition comes to Kew Gardens

Saturday 1 May to Sunday 26 September 2021, at the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art

Release date: 19 February 2021

  • Explores the origins of colour and vision, in an evolutionary journey dating back more than 500 million years
  • Showcases how botanical artists have depicted the brightest and most intense colours found in nature, including the stunning natural phenomenon of iridescence
  • Features a mesmerising, large-scale kaleidoscope with an ever-changing projected image
  • Includes artworks and objects using ‘Pure Structural Colour’, a cutting-edge piece of technology that replicates the most vivid shades found in the natural world, on display to the public for the first time
  • Pure Structural Colour has to be seen in-person to be fully appreciated, and truly shines inside Kew’s gallery
  • Pure Structural Colour is an example of bioinspiration, and is a potential gamechanger for industries to use colour ethically and sustainably

In this unprecedented exhibition, the brightest colours ever to have been created will be on display for the very first time at Kew Gardens this summer. A new type of colour, ‘Pure Structural Colour’, is a cutting-edge piece of technology developed by scientific researchers at Lifescaped lab and takes inspiration from the natural world to synthetically produce any shade of colour in its most vivid form. This new exhibition at Kew Gardens will take visitors on a journey from the very origins of colour on Earth, to ways in which artists have attempted to depict nature’s brightest hues, up to the creation of Pure Structural Colour and its aesthetic potential in the art world and beyond.

Pure Structural Colour

This new technology is an example of bioinspiration - replicating structures found in the natural world for the benefit of human design. In nature, microscopic structures within the surface layers of plants and animals reflect sunlight in a specific way to generate bright colours. Pure Structural Colour replicates these structures to produce such colours artificially. Inspired by the blue-green tinges of iridescent plants and wings of tropical butterflies and hummingbirds, Lifescaped has found a way to reproduce this beautiful natural phenomenon for the first time using only transparent materials. Not only is this a break-through for the world of art and aesthetic design, but Pure Structural Colour has the potential to replace pigments used in wider industry that may not be sourced ethically or sustainably, along with a host of other benefits. The exhibition will include prototype accessories coated with Pure Structural Colour to give visitors a taste of its potential in the world of fashion.

Artistic techniques and Pure Structural Colour on show

Naturally Brilliant Colour brings together works by influential botanical artists such as Robert John Thornton (1768-1837) and contemporary artist Julia Trickey, and details various artistic techniques that have been used to depict the brightest and most vivid colours found in nature. Approaches such as using black backgrounds to intensify colours, applying layered glazes to portray an appearance of lustre or gloss, and using gold leaf or honey glue to replicate natural iridescence, will be shown alongside specimens of butterflies and hummingbirds as a point of comparison.

The exhibition features the world’s first botanical artwork to accurately reproduce natural structural colour, displaying flakes of Pure Structural Colour mixed into the paint used by artist Coral G Guest. Other works also displaying the technology include a mesmerising large-scale kaleidoscope containing glass elements coloured with Pure Structural Colour: the brightest flashes in the ever-changing projected image convey how some plants and animals use natural structural colour to make themselves visible in a dark forest understory.

The origins of colour

Delving deep into the planet’s distant past, the exhibition begins by exploring the ‘birth’ of colour and vision, when animals first developed image-forming eyes more than 500 million years ago. From this point in time, life on Earth evolved in a way that incorporated colour to help species survive and thrive: from the shades of red used to ward off predators, to the multiple colours used in the courtship rituals of animals and pollination tactics of flowering plants. The exhibition also includes colour-field style paintings representing human vision and explores how the human eye perceives colour.

Marc Newson, award-winning designer says:

“Pure Structural Colour is the most vivid colour I have seen, reminiscent of the jewel-like shades that until now could only occur in nature. This is what makes Pure Structural Colour so exciting, bringing something usually glimpsed on a small scale, like the hues found in hummingbirds, tropical fish and beetles for example, into a world of huge possibility. It is very versatile in scale, with applications ranging from large surfaces to tiny flakes.

“In person, Pure Structural Colour is mesmerising. Really, the impact is such that it’s hard to conceive of Pure Structural Colour as only containing transparent materials.”

Maria Devaney, Galleries & Exhibition Leader at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says:

“We are incredibly excited to introduce the world to Pure Structural Colour – a stunning crossover of science and art. This is something that really has to be seen to be believed, and we cannot wait to welcome visitors to the Shirley Sherwood Gallery at Kew Gardens to experience Pure Structural Colour for themselves. Naturally Brilliant Colour immerses visitors in a journey through time, showcasing some of the most beautiful shades in the natural world. A coming together of artwork and innovative technology, this exhibition is truly a feast for the eyes.”

Andrew Parker, Director of Lifescaped says:

"Scientists have sought to reproduce the brightest, metallic-like colours of nature for decades. In Pure Structural Colour, this has been achieved on a large scale for the first time. It is something special to witness these colours as they emerge from our machines - the brightest colours ever seen. They will be revealed to the public for the very first time at this exhibition, in the form of artworks with a complementary natural theme."

Naturally Brilliant Colour: exhibition book

Kew Publishing will release a new book on the exhibition, featuring details about the concepts and artworks on display. It will also take readers through Andrew Parker’s journey to the creation of Pure Structural Colour, with further information about the work of Lifescaped.

A Botanical Rainbow

An exhibition of paintings from the Shirley Sherwood Collection will accompany Naturally Brilliant Colour. ‘A Botanical Rainbow’ will display the work of well-known, contemporary botanical artists, arranged in the seven colours of the rainbow.

What we are doing to keep visitors safe 

The safety and wellbeing of our visitors is of the utmost importance to us and we are continually monitoring and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic as it evolves. We are adhering to government advice in our planning to ensure visitors and staff remain safe while enjoying Naturally Brilliant Colour. Safety measures will reflect government advice at the time of the exhibition run and will be clearly communicated across RBG Kew’s channels and onsite.

ENDS

Admission to the exhibition is included in a ticket to Kew Gardens.

All visitors, including Members, must pre-book a ticket and timed slot for entry to Kew Gardens.

For more information or images, please contact the Press Office at pr@kew.org.

Notes to Editors

About Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world-famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew Gardens’ 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden, attract over 2.5 million visits every year. Kew Gardens was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 260th anniversary in 2019. Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. RBG Kew receives approximately one third of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support RBG Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.

About Lifescaped

Founded by Andrew Parker in 1990 at the University of Oxford, Lifescaped is a scientific research lab, and was officially launched by HRH Prince Charles in 2014 as a bio-inspiration company. Through millions of years of trial and error, animals, plants and microbes have evolved particularly efficient innovations and sparing ways of doing things; Lifescaped has developed a creative process to make these innovations legible to industry and ready for business. Nature’s innovations could make cars more aerodynamic, make company software more secure and result in sunscreens that do not harm marine life. Beyond technology, Lifescaped also has an Art and Design studio, generating images and designs inspired by nature, and an Education programme, developing courses for schools and universities.