A window into the void: This is Vantablack, the darkest black ever created

This color, whose exclusive rights were controversially acquired by sculptor Anish Kapoor, was originally created to be used in outer space

Scene from Fleishman is in Trouble, where the protagonist takes his kids to see a room in Vantablack
Scene from Fleishman is in Trouble, where the protagonist takes his kids to see a room in Vantablack

In episode five of Hulu’s Fleishman is in Trouble, Toby, the main character, decides to go to the American Museum of Natural History in an attempt to fend off his loneliness. There, he walks into an exhibition dedicated to a color as deep as his inner emptiness: black. But not just any black. Vantablack. The blackest black in existence, the most absolute darkness, the greatest void. An enigmatic, surrealistic and mostly unattainable tone that has caused awe, polemic and spite.

Vantablack (“vanta” is an acronym for vertically aligned nanotube arrays) was developed by British scientists at Surrey NanoSystems, a company specializing in nanotechnology and research. Their intention was to create the blackest, purest black, the darkest substance ever created by man, for use for aerospace purposes in satellite calibration systems. This goal was achieved in 2014 with this pigment, which is capable of swallowing 99.96% of all the light it receives.

An object that is covered with Vantablack loses all light reflections, becoming two-dimensional to human eyes. Wrinkles, volumes, bumps; everything disappears. Imagine looking at a screen in which a shape has been cut out, leaving nothing but its absence. Standing in front of something in Vantablack makes you feel like you are staring into space.

Vantablack is not a kind of paint, but a pigment made up of millions of carbon nanotubes, each one approximately 5,000 times finer than a human hair; a single square centimeter is enough for one billion nanotubes. Rather than being reflected, any light that happens to fall on it is almost completely absorbed, becoming heat. It disappears.

The creators of Vantablack have advanced this technology further in recent years to achieve an even blacker black, capable of absorbing 99.965% of the light it receives. They also created a coating named Vantablack S-VIS that can be used to cover objects with these carbon nanotubes. In addition to its two-dimensional appearance, the pigment is hydrophobic, resistant to the vibration of a launch and can withstand temperatures between -196ºC and 300ºC . However, it has so many implications that its commercial use is forbidden, mainly for safety reasons.

In 2019, German car manufacturer BMW, in collaboration with Surrey Nanosystems, presented a model covered in this invisibility cloak: the BMW X6 Vantablack, which appears to be a flat silhouette when seen from the front or the side. It goes without saying that it will never be sold to the public, as it could cause serious problems on the road.

Vantablack was born for space. However, the universe in which it has created the biggest impact is that of art. The same year this creation came into existence, the British sculptor of Indian origin Anish Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to Vantablack, becoming the only person in the world that can use it for artistic or creative purposes. This sparked a fight, as the art world condemned what it considered a monopoly. Christian Furr, the youngest British artist ever to be commissioned to paint Queen Elizabeth II, declared that “it isn’t right that it belongs to one man,” and other artists should be able to use it. “All the best artists have had a thing for pure black — Turner, Manet, Goya. This black is like dynamite in the art world.”

Stuart Semple, another British artist, waged open war against Kapoor, and in 2019 decided to create his own version of the blackest black, securing full development funding through a Kickstarter campaign in just 38 hours. With this, he created Black 3.0, which came very close to the original, although it still only absorbs 98-99% of the light.

He also wanted to give his nemesis a taste of his own medicine, which he did by acquiring the rights to another unique color: the “pinkest pink,” which can be bought on his website — by anyone except Anish Kapoor. During the purchasing process, the buyer must accept a clause that states that they cannot work, collaborate or have any artistic relationship with Kapoor, whose response was an Instagram post showing his middle finger dipped in pink, accompanied by the caption “up yours #pink.” Semple also invented the world’s purest white and called it White 2.0. He claims that it is 50% brighter than any other white in the world and reflects 75% of the sun rays, making it almost impossible to see it without sunglasses.

But back to black. The world of fashion, beauty and art has always regarded this color with fascination. Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto gave us the best possible definition: “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy — but mysterious. But above all black says this: ‘I don’t bother you — don’t bother me.’” Many designers have made it clear that black is whatever you want it to be: it can be classic, it can be provocative, it can be elegant and it can be a disaster. Like Christian Dior said, you can wear it at any time, at any age and for almost any occasion.

Synonymous with chic thanks to Gabrielle Chanel, who liberated women from looking like a vase and dressed them in black, the color is at the same time a symbol of elegance (think Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Carolyn Bessette Kennedy at the end of the 1980s), boldness (Mireille Darc wearing Guy Laroche in The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe), post-punk bands (Bauhaus, Echo & the Bunnymen), conceptual designers (Rei Kawakubo, whose black-worshipping fans were known as “crows” during the 1980s, or Rick Owens, who spent his teenage years in the 1970s hiding behind black clothes – and hasn’t worn anything else since) and electronic music (Depeche Mode). If poetry had a color, it would probably be black. One, however, with a little more light than Vantablack.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS