How Animals See Colour is Crazy, Beautiful and Inspiring

London Natural History Musem's Colour and Vision exhibition explores art, science along with the weird way animals - and humans - see the world.

Swanning down to the beautiful Natural History Museum, London, to appreciate some natural beauty isn’t a bad way to spend your day. Especially if you get some beautiful ideas out of it. 

Colour and Vision: Through the Eyes of Nature takes users on a 565 million year journey from the Pre-Cambrian period to the present day– don’t worry, it’s all contained within a couple of hundred metres. It explores the development of the eye via the traditional cool-specimen-in-a-jar, as well as more high-tech LG ‘perfect colour’ 4K TVs

We’ve picked the best bits from the exhibition: appreciate and understand why striking birds, metallic beetles and iridescent butterflies look so incredible. Even better, take a jaunt inside those pretty heads to find out how they see colour. And, hopefully, you’ll pick some ideas along the way - you know you can learn a lot from your neighbour’s perspective; now, try a different species’.

Colour and Vision: Through the Eyes of Nature runs 15 July – 6 November.

The exhibition begins with artist Liz West’s installation of tubes of white light showing through coloured glass. A long-time appreciator and charmer of colour (seriously, Liz has tamed the rainbow to create some seriously cool work), Liz’s work allows people to consider colour’s composition and impact before the more science-heavy experience.

Image: Liz West’s installation at Colour and Vision 

You call it blue but what someone else sees might be completely different. An hypnotic video in the exhibition explored Liz West’s Your Colour Perception exhibition, which bathed a 5000 square foot space in red, yellow, green and blue. The results were fascinating: Liz found red the most calming space to be in and the green “unnatural” and uncomfortable, but - crazily to her - her friend preferred the green.

The video also talks to artist Neil Harbisson, who has achromatism – a condition meaning Neil has no colour vision at all. Neil is a great example of visual disparity within humans. Working with doctors, he created an antenna permanently implanted into his skull, which allows him to hear colours even beyond the visual spectrum: colours are waves, so they create vibrations. Yup, that means he can listen to sunsets. 

Watch Neil’s TED Talk on how he listens to colour.

Image: Liz West’s Your Colour Perception (top) and Neil Harbisson (bottom)

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Before vision emerged 565 million years ago, life was drab: there was no need for bolding markings, mind-bending camouflage or colour. Why dress seductively, dangerously or interestingly if no one will see?

Thankfully for us though, vision has come a long way in hundreds of millions of years. It is crucial to survival: warning, hiding, attracting mates and more. And humans are hyper-aware of colour and design as a result – which is where artists, designers and illustrators come in.

We’re used to pigmented colour in animals. Structural colour, though, is rarer and can be equally beautiful. For example, the Aphrodite sea mouse (shown) has long, hair-like bristles that shimmer in warning, thanks to crystals on the surface of the hairs reflecting light rays.

The colour of the Madagascan sunset moth (shown) is created by tiny colourless structures that reflect light; and, in another win for flying creatures, the wings of the blue morpho butterfly (shown) inspired dichroic glass, the material used by Liz West in the light installation at the beginning of the exhibition.

The shimmering iridescence of a pheasant’s crown frustrated artist Claude Monet: how could he paint a bird, when its feathers were always changing colour? Beyond frustrating artists, structures have even inspired a lot of new tech.

Image: the Aphrodite sea mouse (top), the Madagascan sunset moth (middle) and the blue morpho butterly (bottom) 

Some animals, such as the group Cnidaria which compromises jellyfish and coral, still see a colourless, poorly defined and shadowy world– but others... er, well, let’s just say that humans need the help of some questionable substances to get anywhere close. 

Image: a human's view of the world (top) and a Maxima giant clam's view of the world (bottom) 

This crazy explosion is undoubtedly my favourite. Head down to the exhibiton to see the world from the point of view of even more animals.

Image: a dragonfly's view of the world (top) and a clam's view of the world (bottom) 

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Mantis shrimps (shown) see a world that’s just as beautiful and intriguing as they look to us. With what is likely the most sophisticated vision in the animal kingdom (yes, including us; they have 16 visual pigments, compared to our three), their compound eyes move independently, scanning for prey and mates. They can process both polarised and ultraviolet lights.

Image: a Mantis shrimp

Take a picture of your own eye, the second most complex organ in your body, at LG’s photo booth. And be pretty wowed. 

Illustrating in block colour is a popular, clean style. But, if you can see past my badly applied make-up and look at my iris (shown), what initially appears to be one, consistent colour turns out to be an intricate lacing of many shades; nature is clearly a great artist.