Introduction: Iridescent Art

About: At ScienceSouth, we're all about inspiring, educating, and entertaining the next generation of scientists. As the outreach coordinator, my goal is to bring hands-on workshops and minds-on assembly shows to sch…

To catch a rare glimpse of the optical phenomenon known as iridescence can be both exciting and captivating. The fascinating array of colors is aesthetically pleasing, but can be a bit of an enigma. In this activity, you'll get a chance to capture the essence of iridescence to create a unique art piece! The best part- the materials are relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire. No fancy equipment needed!

Step 1: What Is Iridescence?

Outrageous Optics. When any type of wave meets another wave, an interference occurs. The resultant wave formed from the interference can be either positive (constructive) or negative (destructive). Constructive interference produces a larger wave, while destructive interference can diminish or destroy a wave. For light waves, constructive interference gives a brighter light, destructive interference results in no light.

Remember, white light is composed of ROYGBIV, the colors of the rainbow. This can be supported or proven by bending, or refracting, white light through a prism. As white light travels through air to a more dense, transparent object, each individual color leaves the object following a unique wavelength, revealing ROYGBIV.

When white light reflects off a mirrored surface, each color reflects without any interference. Sometimes a very special type of reflectance of white light occurs. When white light strikes a thin, transparent film, some of the light reflects off the top surface of the film and some of the light reflects off the bottom surface. Eventually, the light that is reflected off the bottom surface will meet with the light that reflected off the top of the film. Depending upon the distance light travels and bends through the film, constructive and/or deconstructive interference of ROYGBIV can occur, creating the beautiful light effect known as iridescence.

Iridescence can be found in nature on feathers, beetles, shells, and butterflies. In nature, iridescence is caused by rigid layers of molecules positioned at distances that cause either constructive or deconstructive interference of ROYGBIV.

In this activity we're going to use a clear, non-uniform thin layer of clear nail polish to make iridescent art!

Step 2: Gather Materials

To capture a bit of iridescence, obtain the following materials:

  • Plastic dish pan
  • Clear nail polish
    • I used the Pure Ice brand commonly found at Walmart.
  • Black sandpaper
    • Why black? Black absorbs ROYGBIV. If you are naturally inquisitive, I encourage you to try using a colored sheet of paper to see what happens to the quality of the iridescence. Keep in mind, a red sheet of paper reflects red and absorbs the colors OYGBIV.
    • Why sandpaper? We've experimented with construction paper, card stock, and black copier paper and hands-down, sandpaper reigns supreme. The gritty, abrasive surface of the sandpaper provides a great place for the thin layer of polish to rest on. You can experiment with different grit sizes and types of abrasives to see if you get a different quality.
  • Water
  • Scissors (optional)

Step 3: Procedure: Capture the Iridescence

  1. Fill half the plastic bin with tepid water.
  2. Drop one droplet of clear nail polish onto the surface of the water. As the droplet comes in contact with the water, you should notice the thin,iridescent film expand.
  3. Submerge the sandpaper, black surface facing up, then move the paper so that it is directly under the iridescent film. Essentially, the paper is used to scoop up the iridescence.
  4. Slowly lift the sandpaper up, ensuring that the film is resting on the top of the black surface.

Repeat the process with a cut out of your favorite shape!

Step 4: Make a Dragon Head Covered in Iridescent Scales!

Making the dragon head requires the following:

  • Origami paper
    • I wanted my dragon head to be large, so I cut down a piece of black matting paper to a 19in x 19in square. It felt thinner than a piece of poster board, so I figured it would be easier to fold. I found it at Hobby Lobby in Coal Black for $2.19.
  • Adhesive
    • I used hot glue.
  • Plenty of scales, in a variety of sizes, cut from the iridescent sand paper
  • Craft materials for eyes. I used glitter foam sheets, but you can use what ever you like. If anyone has an idea on how to create a Sauron-like eye, I'd love to hear it!

Step 5: Fold the Dragon Head Origami

There are many tutorials on how to fold a snake/dragon head. I have embedded a video for this step.

I have also used this to make a loggerhead sea turtle head. The only limit to this fold is your imagination; decoration is the key to transforming this shape into any creature you wish to make. I think it would make a great black panther head, too!

Step 6: Cover in Scales

I started at the back of the head and placed the scales down in overlapping rows, like shingles on a roof. I used larger scales at the back of the head and gradually transitioned into smaller scales toward the front/mouth area.

This part takes patience and a bit of a steady hand, but the end result is worth it. My hands are pretty calloused, so working with hot glue doesn't deter me from using my fingers to apply the scales, but I recommend using tweezers to apply hot glue to the back of your scales.

For the eyes, I used some scrapes of glitter foam sheets. The sheets can be found at Walmart in the craft section.

Have fun,

Colors of the Rainbow Contest

Runner Up in the
Colors of the Rainbow Contest