Drawing Eyes and the Blackest Black

Blue Cat Eye (9 x 12,” pastel on paper), by Hilary Schenker

Recently I started drawing cat eyes. The iris is a strange, abstract thing. The colors look almost like outer space nebula, unexpected shots of light, twinkling stars, mysterious clouds. And of course in the middle is that shifting black hole, the most intriguing of all, the pupil, admitting but not emitting light.

Green Cat Eye (9x12,” pastel on paper), Hilary Schenker

Eyes are creepy. They are wet and darting like some undersea creature, and, as someone with a bit of an eye phobia (who could never manage contacts because they involve touching one’s eye) they are uncomfortably exposed.

We look at people’s eyes all the time but without really seeing. And when we get too close they lose all meaning. Of course this is true with everything. When examined closely through a macro lens, a coin, lichen on a rock, the skin of our own hand turns alien. Even a word repeated enough times turns to gibberish.

Yellow Cat Eye (9x12,” pastel on paper), Hilary Schenker

(As a side note: After looking at hundreds of pictures of cat eyes, I decided maybe I should try for a good drawing of my own. Unfortunately my iPhone wasn’t up to the task of capturing a good enough picture. And disconcertingly, even though of all the eyes in the world, I know what’s behind mine, staring out of my pupil into my pupil seemed no less absurd.)

Trying to capture an eye on paper is frustrating (for an amusing interlude on the topic, check out this video). It becomes clear quickly that for some reason the eye looks immediately more “realistic” if the light reflection partly overlaps the pupil, though this is not constantly happening in reality. For me, that pure black pupil is the attraction. I find myself going over and over the pupil with black paint, trying to make it blacker, imagining black holes.

Black Hole / Wikicommons

This quest for a blacker black led me on an internet excursion. Here I discovered that the blackest manmade substance is called Vantablack, and was invented recently by a British company called Surrey NanoSystems. Looking at a picture of Vantablack evokes the mystery of looking into a black hole, or that confusing feeling that happens sometimes when you lie on your back and look up at a completely cloudless blue sky and all sense of depth suddenly disappears.

As it turns out, the sculptor Anish Kapoor, of Chicago “Cloud Gate” fame, has bought exclusive rights to use Vantablack in art, causing quite an uproar. Though the material’s light reducing properties have applications in many other fields, from camera equipment to military, Surrey NanoSystems website states that Kapoor’s “exclusive license limits the coating’s use in the field of art, but does not extend to any other sectors.” “This is immoral, surely?” tweeted Carolyn Black, founder of Flow Contemporary arts. What if the company limited its use in other fields to just one license holder? How would the world be poorer? What meaning are we being denied?

Vantablack, Surrey NanoSystems/Wikimedia Commons

Last year at the Mattress Factory I saw James Turrell’s Pleiades. In that work, you feel your way up a ramp in absolute darkness, then find a chair and stare into the blackness, your eyes struggling to adjust to nothing. I loved it. It felt, to me, almost like a relief, to have the world stripped away, my self stripped away for a moment. What if you could have this feeling looking into a black painting?

My mind is awash in the blackest black. I want to cover my little square studio in Vantablack and make the walls, and my self, disappear.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to draw eyes.

Four Cat Eyes (4x4" each, acrylic on wood) by Hilary Schenker

*Note: Want to think more about color? Is a color an object? Read all about it at Object of Conversation blog here!

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.