Wengang Zhai

Wengang Zhai creates bubble macro images "to see if oil on water is beautiful"

Images of oil on water by PhD student and photographer Wengang Zhai form the identity for Dezeen Awards, which this year celebrates its fifth year anniversary.

Zhai, a PhD student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, created these vibrant oil-on-water macro photographs during the first Covid-19 lockdown.

Wengang Zhai
The image above and the rest in its' series have over a million downloads on Unsplash

"Singapore was locked down in April 2020," said Zhai. "There were no outdoor activities. It was very, very tedious."

Zhai told Dezeen about his process. He takes a glass bowl, fills it with water and adds droplets of oil with a doser.

"On my phone, I select an abstract colourful photograph," said Zhai. He then places his phone screen underneath the bowl and, looking straight down, snaps his images.

"This process makes the image very vibrant and it provides these gradients of colour."

Wengang Zhai
This is one of Zhai's favourite images "because the colours are very soft and bright"

"I choose the images randomly but sometimes I decide: well today I want to make a pink image. So I just choose an abstract image with pink colours."

"I eventually started stirring the water and studying the oil, how you can rig it and form new shapes," he described.

"It was very interesting at the time because during lockdown nothing else could be done," said Zhai. "I just wanted to see if oil on water is beautiful."

Wengang Zhai
Using an object such as a chopstick or a fork, Zhai swirls the water to create new gradients and bubbles

The Dezeen Awards team found the images on stock photography website Unsplash. The bubbles in the images inspired a celebratory mood in the team, fit for our fifth anniversary.

"Different people will have different feelings when they look at these images," Zhai said.

"I think they can be popular and they can be useful. Someone might hang them up in their bedroom."

Wengang Zhai
Zhai's photography is used for the Dezeen Awards 2022 identity

"My resources are limited. That's why I also decided to take pictures of nonliving things," added Zhai, whose PhD is in selective laser melting (SLM) of high-performance stainless steel.

SLM fuses fine metallic powders together and is an additive manufacturing process, a process that builds an object one layer at a time.

Zhai uses a Canon 6D Mark II. "Most of my photos are taken on this Canon camera. I'm not a professional. I don't make money from photography. It's my hobby."

Wengang Zhai
Zhai uses a Canon 6D Mark II for his photographs

"Sometimes I take portraits of my friends. I do that for free," he said. "If I charge them, I have to make the photographs more beautiful but if I take them for free I can do whatever I want."

Dezeen Awards launched on 8 February and is accepting entries until 8 June. Read about how you can enter Dezeen Awards 2022.