NanoArt: When Science And Technology Meet Art by Aarti Kapoor                                                                                                 

nanoart cris orfescu

Cris Orfescu combines his art and science backgrounds to create NanoArt. Click here to view some of his work

He may be creating art from small things, but Cris Orfescu is no stranger to the art world. Working from real images of structures that he creates at molecular and atomic scale, Orfescu has for the past 30 years combined his background in science and art to develop fascinating, three-dimensional, and often boldly colorful work depicting the nanouniverse.

The New York Times called his work at the nanoscale as “invitations to let color and shape-shifting run wild”. The French magazine Stuff had this to say about him (translated): "Cris Orfescu lives in a fun universe, populated by phantasmagoric creatures which one would say come from another planet." 

The art form, known as NanoArt, has been steadily gaining popularity around the world, with many universities and scientific societies organizing NanoArt contests. Orfescu explains to NanoScienceWorld how NanoArt represents a new Renaissance and the most innovative way to promote an understanding of nanotechnology.

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Light through a Pinhole 2: Colloidal graphite dried in Liquid Nitrogen. (Image courtesy of Cris Orfescu) 

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 What is nanoart? How would you define it?

NanoArt is a new art discipline at the art-science-technology intersections. It features nanolandscapes (molecular and atomic landscapes which are natural structures of matter at molecular and atomic scales) and nanosculptures (structures created by scientists and artists by manipulating matter at molecular and atomic scales using chemical and physical processes). These structures are visualized with powerful research tools like scanning electron microscopes and atomic force microscopes and their scientific images are captured and further processed by using different artistic techniques to convert them into artworks showcased for large audiences.

 Tell us about yourself and how you became interested in this art form.

I was always interested in nanotechnology as a cutting edge technology capable of changing our lives. I am fascinated by the structure of matter at small scale, and combining my art and science backgrounds I began to develop my NanoArt process about 30 years ago.

I was born in Bucharest, Romania, and live and work in Los Angeles since 1991. I am a degreed scientist and a self-taught artist experimenting for over 40 years with different media and art forms including digital art, murals, acrylic and oil painting, mixed media, faux painting, trompe l’oeil, collage, graphics, animation, web design, video, multimedia. I have shown my works internationally in USA, Italy, France, Finland, Korea, UK, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Colombia, Greece, Romania, in numerous solo and group exhibitions.

 Is there a message that you hope to convey to people through your art?

NanoArt could be for the 21st Century what Photography was for the 20th Century. We live in a new Renaissance period. NanoArt is the expression of the New Technological Revolution and reflects the transition from Science to Art using Technology. Artists should familiarize the general public with the nanouniverse, so people will focus on the positive effects and redirect the negative ones to benefit from them.

 How would you describe the public’s perception of nanotechnology and how does nanoart help them in understanding this new technology?  

Scientists are exploring the nanoworld hoping to find a better future and there is evidence that Nanotechnology might be the answer. At this time, an estimated 70 percent of the American public and a lot higher percentage of the international public are not aware of nanotechnology, although we are using nanotech products on a daily basis. 

Like any new technology, this can have positive or negative effects on the environment and society. In spite of being very attractive for a lot of applications due to their unusual characteristics and super powers, the effects of working with nanomaterials are very little known. There are legitimate health and environmental concerns about nano products, and I hope most of the nanotech companies are willing to develop their products responsibly. NanoArt plays an important role here in educating the general public with attractive and interesting images to help a better understanding of the nanoworld. Artists and scientists should intensify their efforts to raise the awareness of the public at large.

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NanoFireball: Hydrolyzed Titanium metalorganic compound. (Image courtesy of Cris Orfescu)

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 Can you briefly describe how you create your images and the medium that you use? 

My artistic-scientific-technological process starts in a laboratory where I create different structures through the means of physics and chemistry. I called these structures, Nanosculptures. Basically I make sculptures at molecular and atomic levels. For my artworks, I also use natural structures of different materials, and I call these Nanolandscapes. 

The next steps in my process are structure visualization and image capture. To accomplish these steps, I use a Scanning Electron Microscope interfaced with a computer. I use electron microscopes as you can’t view these structures properly with the optical microscopes, and the image is black-and-white since there is no light involved. The depth and three dimensions achieved in NanoArt through electron imaging sets it apart from Photography where images are created by photons (particles of light) rather than by electrons (electrically charged particles). The electrons, as in NanoArt, penetrate deeper inside the structure creating images with more depth, more natural 3D-look than the photographic images. 

Some of the captured images are painted and manipulated digitally, combining the realistic images of these structures with abstract colors. To paint them, I have developed in Photoshop a technique that I call "Digital Faux". Faux painting is a very old technique used by decorative painters to recreate the look and feel of many types of natural materials. Faux finishes use glazes instead of paint. The difference between these two is paint is opaque and glaze is translucent. By layering glazes, one can produce more 3-dimensional effects than with paint. Like traditional faux, Digital Faux is done by overlaying translucent layers of color to create the perception of depth, volume, and form. 

The final step of my process is printing. I print my works on canvas or fine art paper with long-lasting inks using the Epson process. This way, my artworks could be showcased for large audiences to educate the public with creative images that are appealing and acceptable.

 Do you have a personal favorite amongst the work that you have created so far? 

“In Pieces” - nanosculpture created by freezing a tiny drop of colloidal graphite (graphite nanoparticles in a suspension) in Liquid Nitrogen at 196 degrees Celsius below zero. The structure was visualized with a Scanning Electron Microscope. The monochromatic scan was captured in a computer, painted and manipulated digitally, and the final image was printed on canvas with archival inks specially formulated to last for a long time.

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  In Pieces: Colloidal graphite dried in Liquid Nitrogen. (Image courtesy of Cris Orfescu)

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 What are you currently working on?

I am simultaneously working to finish several monochromatic and color works I started a while ago. I am also very busy promoting NanoArt as the expression of the New Technological Revolution. I consider NanoArt the most innovative way to promote nanotechnology and educate the general public. 

Since nanotech is going to be the top technology for the next few decades, in my opinion, I would strongly suggest everyone to stay in touch with it, eventually through NanoArt. Recently, I launched a new blog about Nanotechnology and Art (http://nanoart21.org/blog), where I am planning to start a history of NanoArt, and explore in depth the art-science-technology interactions. Artists, scientists, and anyone interested to contribute to the topic are invited to submit articles.

 What are your future plans in nanoart?

The NanoArt movement is alive and is catching up a lot of speed lately. I will give you a couple of examples: when I started to organize the International Online Competition, there were not too many similar projects. Now, after a few years, there are a lot of NanoArt contests organized by universities and scientific societies. 

Also, at the 4th edition of the International Online Competition organized by NanoArt21 (http://nanoart21.org), 48 artists from 15 countries submitted 154 works vs. 71 artworks submitted by 22 artists from 5 countries in 2006 at the 1st edition of the competition. On top of this, the quality of the works improved a lot showing a better understanding of this new art discipline. 

We have a very active international group which is rapidly expanding. I funded the NanoArt21 organization several years ago as a worldwide organization to educate people and promote this new art discipline and movement. A few years later, I can say that we have this international group of artists with huge interest in nanotechnology and nanoscience. 

Besides organizing the International Online Competition each year, we also organize the International Festival of NanoArt in brick-and-mortar galleries all over the world. This year, we’ve been invited in San Sebastian, Spain, where we are planning to organize the 3rd edition of the festival. The first 2 editions were hosted in Kotka, Finland and Stuttgart, Germany. 

My vision for the NanoArt21 foundation is an organization where artists and scientists from all over the world will be offered residencies to collaborate and create NanoArt works and projects in studio-labs, and then have their works exhibited in worldwide venues. It looks like we got to the point where we need external funding, but we have to be very careful not to get sponsors who do not understand what a responsible nanotechnology development is. I would like to invite nanotech companies to contact us at info@nanoart21.org if they are interested in sponsoring our work.

For more details on Orfescu’s work, visit: www.crisorfescu.com or www.absolutearts.com/ nanoart

Article copyright © 2010 NanoScienceWorld

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