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[Exclusive Video] Creating Sand Castles With A Single Grain Of Sand

After four years of trial-and-error experimentation, artist Vik Muniz and artist/researcher Marcelo Coelho successfully created drawings as tiny as they are tremendous: magnificent castles etched onto microscopic grains of sand—a complete and innovative reversal of building a sand castle.

At less than half a millimeter in length, crisp drawings appear on flecks of earth that seem inconsequential to the naked eye. Muniz, an artist known for works that alter perspectives based on context, used to create massive, 500-meter-long drawings that could only be seen from helicopter. At ground level, these sketches looked just like dug-out paths in dirt. About five years ago, however, Muniz began thinking in the opposite direction: what if he could make drawings both miniature and monumental?

Above, watch our documentary on these micro sand castles, debuting today at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art as part of a comprehensive exhibit on the work of Vik Muniz. The Creators Project is exploring the ways in which technology is allowing the size of our canvas to shrink or grow dramatically. From microscopic art to projects with the ambition to (literally) paint the sky, we are looking at artists who are seeking out new canvases, and as part of that pursuit, new methods of creation. Continue below for more on Muniz and Coelho's mind-blowing process behind their seemingly-imperceptible engravings. 

To achieve these etchings, Muniz and Coelho devised a highly-technical process, that involved both antiquated technology and innovative visual tools. Muniz first created sketches of castles using a camera lucida, an optical superimposition device created in 1807 that turns images in front of the viewer into a projection on piece of paper, allowing him to trace the tiny castles.

Next, he sent these drawings to Coelho, who toyed with a variety of microscopic drawing processes for four years with limited successes. Laser-inscription, for example, often destroyed the soft sand, or wouldn't appear distinct enough on harder grains. Finally, he began using a Focused Ion Beam (FIB), a device typically used for fixing integrated circuits on microchips, at highly-sensitive levels to yield the shape of a castle at a microscopic scale.

The FIB uses two screens: the first frames the image, depicting the electrons needed to see the grain. The second screen displays the ions which etch the grain, resulting in a crisp image of Muniz's castles:

On why they picked sand castles, Muniz noted, "I rely on images that are simple, that you've seen a million times... You think you know it but then you have to know it again." 

At these magnification level, a single pixel is about 50 nanometers wide. Yep, nano. A single line can be somewhere between .4 to 1.0 micrometers—close to the diffraction limit of visible light, hence why the duo can't photograph these drawings using an optical microscope. Each image requires at least nine scans before it can be printed, which Muniz blows up into four feet wide macro photographs. 

"It's really strange," said Coelho, "because you're drawing on to a canvas and you don't really know what it is and you can't hold it." Throughout his trial-and-error process, Coelho kept asking himself, what if he just Photoshopped the images? "You realize it's not the same thing. The final image carriers the process of the images you've developed." 

Muniz added a rather-epiphanic thought on this project: "When someone tells you it's a grain of sand, there's a moment where your reality falls apart and you have to reconstruct it. You have to step back and ask what the image is and what it means," much like what happened to our understanding of painting when the photo was first introduced. 

"I think photography is just re-starting," said Coelho. "There's a whole new kind of photography emerging now. A lot of it is happening because of this combination between computers and cameras, and story telling and narratives can emerge as a result."