Paint by Numbers? Try Paint by Lasers


By: Hannah Pell

The potential impact of a work of art is by no means limited by or related to its size. Whether an intricate mural spanning the side of a building or sculpture carved on the tip of a pencil, the art of all scales is significant and meaningful to us, and the principles of optics govern its scientific source of visual beauty.

I’ve written for Physics Buzz before about how conservation scientists use imaging techniques to help investigate if a piece of art is real or counterfeit — but what if I told you that an advanced paint-by-lasers method can actually be used to create artwork, including miniature masterpieces?

This is exactly what researchers at the ITMO University in Russia have achieved. In a paper soon to be published in Optica, an online and open-access journal from The Optical Society (OSA), the authors demonstrate their new method for using lasers to color metal akin to artists painting with a paintbrush.

How does it work? The metal is first heated past the melting temperature, as is usually the case in other methods. As it cools, a thin film of metal oxide forms on the surface. Light then reflects from the metal oxide layer to produce different colors depending on the thickness of the film. Importantly, because this technique involves heating the metal to nearly the point of evaporation, researchers can even erase or change the color of a region that’s already been “painted” over. This paper is an extension of the authors’ prior work creating colors on titanium and stainless steel with lasers.

“With this approach, an artist can create miniature art that conveys complex meaning not only through shape and color but also through various laser-induced microstructures on the surface,” first author Vadim Veiko told OSA.

The authors demonstrated their technique by recreating tiny adaptations of masterpieces, including a 3×2 inch version of Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” in only four minutes, as well as designing their own original pieces of art. Their previous work also includes laser-decorated silver jewelry and replicas of an artists’ illustrations.

Image Credit: Yaroslava Andreeva.
So how soon will we all be painting with lasers? The authors hope to potentially design a handheld tool that could substitute for a paintbrush so that artists can directly “paint” onto metallic surfaces. “We hope that laser painting will attract the attention of modern artists and lead to the creation of a completely new type of art,” author Yaroslava Andreeva told OSA. Additionally, the researchers believe this technique could be useful for industry applications because the “paintings” do not require any special kind of storage.

Perhaps this technique will open the door to a new artistic medium; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time technology has changed art (and vice versa). Just as optical scientists continue to experiment, so too will artists, with a shared goal of understanding, capturing, and interpreting the world around us.

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