Nature’s Variety of Colour

The London College of Fashion has been running a series of fashion science talks called Skin Deep, including one entitled ‘Nature’s Variety of Colour’ given by Andrew Parker of the Natural History Museum and Green Templeton College, Oxford. The lecture explored one of Professor Parker’s research specialisms, and emerging area of study known as biomimetics: learning from nature. In the context of colour this involves looking at the way colour is generated in nature, this generally occurs in five difference ways: bioluminescence, fluorescence, pigments, colour-matching and structural colour. The talk addressed some of the different ways these processes could be translated to new techniques and technology for creating colour in fashion, textiles and cosmetics.

There was a lot of detail, examples and technical information included in the talk, and to gain a full appreciation and understanding of the subject, I think required a significant amount of background knowledge about the physics of light.

However there were two key concepts which I took from the talk that have given me a new appreciation of how we see colour.

Pigments are very common in the world around us and in nature. They give us the colour of our eyes, skin and hair and provide the colour of most of the man made objects around us. Prior to the talk my understanding of how objects appear coloured was limited to the basic concept of light waves being reflected off an object, which are then absorbed by the eye and translated in the brain.

However there is much more to this process which was explained through the way colour is generated in pigments. When light hits a pigmented object, the electrons in the chromophore, which is the part of the molecule the is responsible for colour react. The electrons in the chromophore are excited by absorbing the energy of the photons in the light waves that are not reflected.

The other concept that I found significant was how the ability to see may well have been one of the key evolutionary events that led to intelligent life. The Light Switch theory describes how the evolution of the eye probably triggered the Cambrian explosion in evolutionary advancement 543 million years ago which led to a rapid increase in the diversity of life. Trilobites were some of the first living creature to have successfully developed a visual system. In evolutionary terms having eyes was a seriously competitive advantage. Prior to this, although there obviously was light, all living things lived a life of darkness, with little awareness of their surroundings, their prey or predators.

With eyes, Trilobites were able to both see there prey and predators, who might not have necessarily been able to see them, giving them a far better chance of surviving.  Other organisms were forced to develop defences against this, encouraging complexity and variety of life. Although there is still scientific debate surrounding this period of history, there is evidence that the eye was a significant trigger for the explosion of life in the Cambrian era.

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About eleanorbydesign

Graduate of MA Graphic Design at London College of Communication

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