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Tripping the Light Fantastic: Artists Paint With Light

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Via This Colossal, Jen-Luc Piquant was thrilled to learn about a nifty new tool called the Pixelstick. The brainchild of Duncan Frazier and Steve McGuigan of Brookyln-based BitBanger Labs, the Pixelstick lets users create long-exposure light paintings — and yes, they have a Kickstarter campaign. Per the Website:

Pixelstick reads images created in Photoshop (or the image editor of your choice) and displays them one line at a time, creating endless possibilities for abstract and/or photorealistic art. Taking this one step further, Pixelstick can increment through a series of images over multiple exposures, opening up light painting to the world of timelapse, and allowing for animations the likes of which have never before seen.

It’s just the latest wrinkle in a technique that’s been around for about 125 years, in which “exposures are made usually at night or in a darkened room by moving a handheld light source or by moving the camera.” (Thank you, Wikipedia!) Light painting has a fascinating history. The emergence of photography was eerily prefigured in a mid-18th century science fiction novel by Charles Francois Tiphaigne de la Roche called Giphantie. He envisioned an imaginary world where it was possible to capture images from nature on a canvas coated with a sticky substance, which would preserve the image after it had been dried in the dark.

It would take more than a century for chemistry to catch up with de la Roche’s imagination. Scientists already knew that silver chloride and silver nitrate both turned dark when exposed to light, and the first silhouette images were captured by Thomas Wedgwood at the start of the 19th century. With the invention of film, they were able to make those images permanent.

Photography essentially freezes a moment in time by recording the visible light reflected from the objects in the camera lens’s field of view. The reflected light causes a chemical change to the film inside the camera, which is coated with grains of silver-halide crystals. These crystals are naturally sensitive to light. By opening a camera’s shutter for a split second, you expose the crystals to light and transfer energy from the photons to the silver halide crystals. This induces the chemical reaction, forming a latent image of the visible light reflected off the objects in the viewfinder.

If too much light is let in, too many grains will react and the picture will appear washed out. Too little light has the opposite effect: not enough grains react and the picture is too dark, as anyone who has ever taken an indoor photo without a flash can attest. Changing the size of the aperture or lens opening controls the amount of light. In modern cameras, this is the job of the diaphragm, which works the same way as the pupil in the eye. Chemicals are used in the developing process, which react in turn with the light-sensitive grains, darkening those exposed to light to produce a negative, which is then converted into a positive image in the printing process.

Étienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny: Light Painting 1889. Archives of the College of France.

It was only a matter of time before artists and photographers (and artist photographers) figured out how to “paint” with light. Around 1889, Etienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny founded a laboratory in the Bois de Bologne in Paris, in which to study movement using innovative photographic techniques. To create the first known light painting, Demeny attached light bulbs to the joints of an assistant as the latter walked, and photographed the result.

The first to do was Man Ray, back in 1935, when he “signed” his series “Space Writing” with a penlight — something that wasn’t discovered until 74 years later, by photographer Ellen Carey. (Apparently, for Man Ray, his light painting signature was just one big in-joke.)

In the 1940’s LIFE photographer Gjon Mili — originally an engineer by training who helped pioneer photoflash technology — used stroboscopic light to capture the motion of dancers, figure skaters, musicians and jugglers in a single exposure. And in 1949, Mili was assigned to photograph Pablo Picasso, and produced a series of shots of Picasso making impromptu sketches with a small flashlight. Per LIFE:

Why not have him draw in the dark with a light instead of a pencil?” mused the photographer… as he was on his way to the Riviera to photograph [Picasso]. At Madoura Pottery, Mili accomplished just that; he showed Picasso some of his photographs of light patterns formed by a skater’s leaps — obtained by affixing tiny lights on the points of the skates. Picasso reacted instantly and this photo of Pablo Picasso drawing a centaur in the air was born. “This spectacular ‘space drawing’ is a momentary happening inscribed in thin air with a flashlight in the dark — an illumination of Picasso’s brilliance set off by the spir of the moment,” wrote Mili in Picasso’s Third Dimension.

Artists have been painting with light ever since, especially with the advent of digital cameras, which work on the same principle as a conventional camera. But instead of focusing light onto a piece of film, a digital camera focuses it onto an image sensor made of tiny light-sensitive diodes that convert light into electrical charges. It turns the fluctuating waves of light (analog data) into bits of digital computer data. Digital cameras have contributed to the rise in light painting, because it’s easier for artists to see the results immediately.

The Interwebz tell me that doing your own light painting is remarkably simple: all you need is a camera capable of long exposures (preferably digital); a tripod (because of the long exposure times); a flashlight; and a dark location. You can create a light painting by moving the camera itself, but the easiest way is to mount a camera on a tripod and use a moving light source as your “paintbrush” — anything from a basic flashlight or candles, to glowsticks and fiber optic light pens. You’ll probably also want to use manual focus, which is better for dim light situations, and/or a slow film speed/low ISO setting. For sharper images, use a smaller aperture (f16 or f22), although this means you’ll need a longer exposure time. If you want to get all artsy and blur things up a bit, larger apertures (f6) can be used.

Image by Janne Parviainen http://jannepaint.wix.com/jannepaint

Back in 2011, Finnish artist Janne Parviainen produced a series of light paintings — dubbed “Light Skeletons” — in the snow, with light as his paintbrush and, well, the night as his canvas. The image at left, straight from the camera, is not only haunting but also attests to Parviainen’s commitment to his art: not even the freezing cold could stop him!

See, light painting requires long exposure times and a great deal of patience. So… “When you’re standing two hours in a knee deep snow in minus 20 celsius degrees taking photos, playing with fire starts to sound like a great idea, haha!” he wrote of the experience. “I only burnt my coat just a little while doing this.”

I first heard about light painting as a technique from Lia Halloran, an LA-based artist who lives near us and just happens to be a big physics-fan. This appreciation very much informs her art: she’s figured out visually arresting ways to make the abstract and/or invisible apparent to the viewer.

From the "Dark Skate" series by Lia Halloran.

For instance, she’s an avid skateboarder, and knows darn well that this involves a heck of a lot of physics. Back in 2008, she created a striking series of photographs (part of a gallery exhibit called “Dark Skate”) taken at night in various locations around Los Angeles where skaters (or “sk8ers” as the kids today call them) converge.

Halloran skateboarded around these venues and used light painting to trace a line recording the trajector of her movements over time — evidence of past action, but with no trace of the figure that left the pattern.

Halloran is in good company in her fondness for painting with light. Fellow Angeleno artist Darren Pearson also employs light painting to create his photographs, and he’s created a special series just in time for Halloween.

There’s even a spiffy light painting stop-motion video that he spent nearly a year creating, featuring a skateboarding skeleton. Per This Colossal “the video involves over 700 individual photographs that were painted in camera using a small flashlight.”

Happy Halloween!

[Parts of this post adapted from posts in 2011 and 2008 on the old Cocktail Party Physics archived blog.]

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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