Arts + Design

Gallery: The beauty of a thin film of oil

Oct 13, 2016 /

Artist Fabian Oefner works with everyday materials to create astonishing, unrecognizable images. Here’s a look at how he does it.

Where most people would likely see an unassuming puddle on the side of the road, Fabian Oefner (TED Talk: Psychedelic science) sees an artistic opportunity. In his new photographic series, Oil Spill, he focuses on the iridescent sheen of a thin film of oil that often shows up on the ground in or around gas stations. “Why not take that into a controlled, studio environment, and see what I can do with it, and learn from it, and how it actually works?” he says of his motivation for the work. The result of his curiosity? A series of stunning photographs and a profound lesson on the beauty of everyday things. He talks us through the project.

Intricate images, a simple setup

“It’s not a complicated setup,” Oefner explains of the photo shoots. The background of the image is a wooden board he paints black and then coats with water. A syringe that releases oil is underneath the board, forming the black hole we see at the center. The oil comes up from the syringe and then travels out across the board. As it spreads and evaporates, it creates the colorful sheen. The only real pain of the setup? “The oil attacks the paint, so you have to repaint the board every time,” he says.

The interplay of light and oil

The whole process from pushing the switch that releases the oil until it has all evaporated takes about 20 seconds. The wild difference in the look of the images comes from taking the photographs when the oil is in different stages of its journey. As the oil spreads, light passes through it and is reflected back into the camera (or the eye). It’s the reflection and refraction of light that creates the iridescence in the image.

The evolution of color

Which colors appear depends upon the thickness of the layer of oil, itself caused by a combination of evaporation and the rough texture of the wooden board, which causes it to accumulate in certain areas. As the oil evaporates, “it goes from cooler colors to warm colors, red being the last one, before it’s gone again.” In the case of this image, the red and yellow at the center are places where the oil is already quite thin and in the blue areas, it is still thick. And black? That’s either where the oil has already completely evaporated — or where the layer is still very thick.

The beauty of the everyday

The black hole at the center of the photographs is partially one of Oefner’s photographic tricks, but it is also created by a thicker pool of oil, created because that’s where the syringe delivers it to the board. Oefner sees the colors as something beautiful, poetic — and the study of them to be deeply satisfying. “With many things that we see in everyday scientific life, we take them for granted” he muses. “I think if you look at something closer, it’s like, how does it really work? Why are the colors there? Then you spend time looking at these things and it’s very rewarding.”

The need to experiment

For Oefner, art is experimentation, and he tried out many materials before settling on the base for these pictures. He tried dripping oil on everything from glass covered in black paint to self-adhesive foil to a small piece of slate rock. Glass was too smooth and lacked an interesting texture, while slate was too rough, the textures too prominent and distracting from the colors. A search for the right amount of texture is what ultimately led him to use the custom-made black board. These first experiments are mostly done without the camera even being there. “It’s not a very structured or a very effective way of doing it,” he confesses. “It’s spending a lot of time on things nobody will ever see.”

Art, a scientific process

But, once he has determined the setup he would like to use, he sticks to it. By repeating the same process over and over again, he is able to observe and learn about the phenomenon he is studying. When he first began Oil Spill, he had no clue why certain colors appeared at certain times or in certain places, but by paying close attention, he began to notice patterns, allowing him to deduce the relationship between thickness and color. “I look at science through the tools of an artist,” he says.

The importance of intuition

Oefner works on many different projects at once, and he says that this can help to ensure he selects the best pictures for each series. “Often I spend months on different things,” he says. “Then I look at the images again and have a clearer mind and idea of what I want to achieve.” As such, selecting the ten pictures that make up Oil Spill was an intuitive process, made over the course of three weeks.

A slight tweak

To create this image, Oefner changed his process to apply the oil with a syringe from above rather than below. He also experimented with applying the liquid in different ways, via brushes or his bare hands, but he found that using a syringe was the best technique. In this case, because the oil is applied from above, the black hole normally at the center, created by the presence of the syringe beneath the board, disappears.

Iridescence up-close

To Oefner, this image (a close-up of the previous picture) looks like “a thick layer of paint that is being painted with a paintbrush.” A different type of view, he says he likes it because “it is so rich in terms of information on such a small scale.”

Behind the scenes

Oefner sees the final photographs as an output or byproduct of the exploration and process rather than the impetus for the work itself. As an artist, he says he profits from the action of doing and gaining new insights into how things work, not from taking the images. “It’s almost like an attitude towards life, how you look at your environment, how you perceive things and how you communicate with others,” he says of his approach.