What Is the Blackest Black? A Story of Petty Revenge

What Is the Blackest Black?

Ever have that one friend who sees the color black and without fail will tell you about the difference between black and white when it comes to art and physics? You know, that whole thing about how black is the absence of color in physics, but the presence of all of them in art. It’s the exact opposite for the color white and all that. But when it comes to making pigments, what’s the blackest black we’ve ever made? It’s actually quite a fun story about petty revenge.

What Is the Blackest Black? Ground Rules

Since we’re dealing with pigments, we’re not going to have to deal with whether or not black is every color or the lack of any color. We just have to deal with how we see things. 

So how do we actually see color? The first gatekeeper is the visual spectrum, because we’re limited by our own bodies. Unfortunately for us, we can only see a very narrow frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum–between 380-740 nanometers. This amounts to less than 1% of the electromagnetic spectrum. Actually, it’s even less than 0.01%. Try 0.004%!

Honestly though, that’s probably a good thing. Imagine how nutty it would be if we could see Wi-Fi signals or the radiation that comes out of our microwaves. Or even the UV radiation blasting us from the sun! The crazy part is that some animals can actually do this. Like the super cool mantis shrimp. No really, this sucker can see like twice the amount of colors we can.

So what makes something colorful? It’s all about what it absorbs and reflects. What you see is what the object doesn’t reflect back into your eyes. White light contains the wavelengths for all the colors we can see. We can see this as our “baseline.” When that white light hits an apple, the apple skin absorbs every frequency that is not red. Thus, we see the apple as red.

What Does this Mean for our Blackest Black?

For our blackest black, it has to absorb as much white light as possible. 

There’s not that much else to it. Gaze into the abyss and the abyss shall gaze back, or something

Introducing Vantablack

Coming out of the UK Surrey NanoSystems in 2009 is vantablack. It’s so dark that in images, it looks like someone just photoshopped a part of the picture out. It’ll even make it look like wrinkles and contours on an object are flat too–turning a sphere into a circle. The name vantablack stems from an acronym for Vertically Aligned Nano Tube Array.

Technically, there could be blacker, we suppose. Vantablack absorbs 99.96% of visible light. But we haven’t really gotten better at it since. 

So what makes vantablack the blackest black? You can think of it like a ton of rods sticking out of the ground, not unlike a forest. These rods are small enough to be applied as paint–and you’re not going to be seeing them with the naked eye. 

Light that hits vantablack is not only absorbed, it’s essentially trapped in this carbon tube forest. Any light that bounces off the gaps between the rods is likely to hit one of the carbon nanotube rods–which is likely to hit another rod. More light is absorbed each time it hits a rod, and thus, eventually the vast majority of the light is absorbed. 

Can You Buy Vantablack?

Unfortunately, not really. Not because it’s not commercially available (though it isn’t really), but because one person has a monopoly on vantablack–much to the chagrin of artists everywhere. If you’re at all involved with the art community, you probably know who this person is.

We won’t name them, because they’re petty enough to make themselves the only person on the planet with the right to use vantablack.

Here’s where the fun starts. Out of spite (honestly it was just a direct response, it might not be spite), artist Stuart Semple made the pinkest pink. He also made a really dark black that absorbs 99% of visible light named “Black 3.0.” It’s not the 99.96% carbon nanotubes afford vantablack–but it’s pretty close for artists aspiring to use the color.

The best part? If you want to buy Black 3.0 you have to affirm you’re not the person who stole vantablack. So we guess revenge isn’t best served cold. It’s best served covered in inedible, black paint.

There’s been a lot of talk of the color black. So look at some black and white things here.