Iridescent Art




Introduction: Iridescent Art

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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,

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    46 Discussions

    Amazing ! Thanks for sharing.

    It looks fantastic and i want to try it.... Could you please tell me what Grit number the black sandpaper is?

    Hello! Thank you so much for this tutorial!! I couldn’t tell you how long I was looking for any easy and fun way to make iridescent material. I was wondering, do you know if this works on foam/EVA foam too? I’m going to experiment of course, but if the instructable creator has ever tried, I’d love to know. Thank you!

    This sounds very cool. I have not tried it yet. How thin does the polish have to be? I was wondering what would happen if you just put the clear nail polish directly on the black sandpaper? The grit on the paper would make the polish layer different thicknesses, yes? Would the polish layer just be too heavy with out thinning it out on top of water? Of course it would probably take a lot more nail polish.

    1 reply

    Hey there! The layer has to be incredibly thin. Nail polish is extremely hydrophobic- could be the nitrocellulose . You can observe its hydrophobic nature as the droplet comes in contact with the water- it spreads out almost instantaneously. As it spreads, it thins out in a manner that I couldn’t possibly replicate by painting. Therefore, if you try to just paint over the sandpaper, I’m assuming that you’ll just get a glossy looking sheet of sandpaper. Don’t take my word for it, try it out and let me know how it works!

    Take care,

    I am excited to try this! Will the remain intact for extended time in a "normal" indoor environment? i.e. do you have to somehow protect it by some protective layer so that the nail polish will not flake off?

    1 more answer

    If kept indoors it should last a couple of years. The Batman cutout was created over a year ago, but it looks a bit worn because it was thrown in a storage bin with other sandpaper and wasn’t stored properly. Also the one picture at the very top of the instructable-with mostly blue in the iridescent sandpaper-is well over a year old. If you’re planning on leaving it out in a room or framing it, it will last for years. I’m not planning on coating my dragon in anything because I know it will be okay, but if you really want something extra, it might take some experimentation. I will tell you that hair spray will completely remove the iridescence. I guess you’ll have to figure out what nail polish isn’t soluble in. It’s extremely hydrophobic, if that helps. Also you run the risk of the coating interfering with the iridescence. If you find something though, please share it with us.

    Take care,

    This is so awesome, and yet so simple! The explanation of the science behind it (thin film interference) is also so well done! Thanks a lot. One of my favorite instructables!

    This is vary cool!!! Do you happen to know how to make clear glass iridescent? I have been looking around and have not had any luck.

    1 more answer

    Exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun makes glass iridescent. It's called desert glass. Rhinestones use a thin layer of metal plated on glass to create iridescent gems. google Aurora borealis rhinestones..

    Is there any other thing you can use instead of clear nail polish I am thinking of using WD 40 or some other type of oil any ideas ?

    1 more answer

    thinned linseed oil would probably work, but it takes a long time to dry. WD 40 would probably take forever to dry.

    they say seeing is believing and man oh man I loved that trick I am so going to do this I have a workshop full of black sandpaper lol it’s one of best ones to use when sanding but to change it from sandpaper to a work of art now that’s priceless :-)

    Thanks for sharing this tip I am going to,have so much fun with this now :-) :-)

    This would be an excellent entry for the "Colors of the Rainbow" contest for the "Judges Prize for the best overall use of all of the colors of the rainbow."

    1 reply

    I submitted it, but I'm not sure it's on the same level as some of the other entries. I have referenced this site many times and I'm always amazed at everyone's creativity and ingenuity. EVERYONE is just so clever. I'm just happy that some people are considering this activity as a creative outlet.

    That was an excellent tutorial! Thank you for the link.

    I am happy to hear that that is what you were looking for. It would sure make your dragon head spectacular. The young lady who did this video has many others on YouTube. She is a very creative, and lovely person. So happy to assist you.

    Think this is fantastic can't wait to try but wanted to ask, you show the dragon outside do you have some way to waterproof it ? Many thanks.

    1 more answer

    I might have an option for you. I have made the dragon head in a clear Sparco page protector (see below). Maybe you can use one of those black plastic folders that can be found at the dollar tree. I would try to rough up the surface of whatever you try to coat in the iridescence. Too slick of a surface and I think it might not adhere or it might easily wipe off.