Painting with light

Painting with light 

Alvin Xiong

MFA YEAR 1 (10/2014)


The initial aim of my art was to paint with oils in the tradition of the old masters. My dream was to be one of the best painters in the world. I was fascinated with the painting techniques employed by the old masters such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Diego Velazquéz, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, and Peter Paul Rubens.

 Everything changed though when I moved to a new country to live. Moving from China to New Zealand was such a culture shock for me and the new environment inspired me. For the first time I had the chance to experiment with and develop new materials and mediums and to create new works, aided by this new perspective.

I visited an international light show in Guangzhou before I moved back to Auckland. The beauty of light impressed me at night and I began thinking about the possibility of using light as the new medium to create my work. Working with this new material was refreshing because it provided a platform to depart from traditional oil painting medium, into the unknown. 

 Prior to this point I was struggling to use oil paint as my only medium to create artworks, because I could not really build up the connection between my heart and the material. I felt uncomfortably limited by the medium. It is like Wassily Kandinsky said that I was ruled by the exterior impression rather than by the interior sound.’ I could not free my inner expression by only using oil paint while I restricted myself to oil paint. I think that the connection between the work, the material and the artist’s inner expression is one of the most important things in artwork as Kandinsky described his painting purpose …All of my works have only one purpose, or rather, reason – I had to make them, because there was no other way I could free myself of certain thoughts (or, perhaps, dreams). Nor am I thinking of any practical use. I have just got to make the thing.” 

I started to explore how to mix up my painting knowledge by using other materials to create new works and pushing the boundary of the preconceived limit in my work. My knowledge of painting provides a background which gives me a particular perspective that differs from those working around me. I aim to merge this painting experience with experimentation through another medium.


Light painting photography:

Minimalism interests me because it aims to exclude the pictorial, fictive and illusionistic in favor of the literal. Thinking about this genre of art practise has led me to a place where I am reducing the realist and pictorial elements at work in my painting. As a consequence I hope to enhance the personal reflection between the material and the thinking. I want to answer my inner expression and creativity rather than mimic nature. I read a book called ‘Painting with Light: Light Art Performance Photography’, which is written by two German artists Janleonardo Woellert and Joerg Miedza. The book is about their innovated art form: Light Art Performance Photography (LAPP). I found that this book is useful and helpful to me, because they use the ‘old’ photographic techniques but they mixed their new idea to let the old staff becomes a contemporary art form, this kind of crossover and mix-up phenomenon influenced me a lot in my works. 

LAPP is one of the first forms of art using light as the medium to gain widespread attention. LAPP differs from other ways of working with light because it involves more than a simple illumination of existing objects; The photographer aims instead to create and capture new subjects that are constructed entirely of light. Works of this kind are characteristically shot at night and rely on long exposure photographic techniques to capture complex sequences of precisely choreographed movements. In the background of their works, real-world surroundings are combined with transient, light-based elements to produce spectacular effects.

The typical defining characteristic of LAPP is the harmony between the background and the harsh light often used to produce the individual image elements. The symbiosis between photographer and performer gives each work a degree of reproducibility that is essential if it is to be accurately restaged at a later time.

Using light as the medium evident in their work encouraged me to consider using a no paint medium to create a painting I wanted to challenge how I can extend and crossover my painting knowledge by using an unfamiliar material. I believe ‘painting with no paint’ allow me concentrate on developing the relation and the reflection between the medium and my idea.

Man Ray said “I began as a painter. In photographing my canvases I discovered the value of reproduction in black and white. … I need to experiment in one form or another. Photography gives me the means, a simpler and faster means than painting.”

His words influenced me to think that I can use photography to break my previous mind setting. Because photography is faster to develop and experiment my ideas by creating the images in a short time. Photograph is like my pencil drawing but in a different way and I found that is very useful and helpful for quickly visualize my idea. It means when I have an idea, I can quickly finish the image and get the result; that helps me to focus on my idea not on the image itself but also my thinking behind the work. The idea ‘painting with no paint’ makes me think about these questions: What makes a painting being special? What is my purpose to create a painting? Why I have to be stuck in one medium to create my work? What is the reflection between the viewer and my work? How to use different painting materials to express my idea instead of using oil paint? I do not want to be an artist who lives in a contemporary time but creating some works as similar as the traditional craft man did ages ago. Like Pablo Picasso said that ‘The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?’

I use the process of long exposure photographic techniques to create images similar as LAPP use that technique in their works. But the difference in my techniques is that I move a hand-held light sources or the camera to create my image. I found that when I use light as my medium to create my image, I feel to be more comfortable and free. I guess it is because in my previous oil painting work, I always have a plan for my self to guide my painting to come out. It means that before I start creating my painting, I already realized the result of the work, because I have enough experience and techniques to paint whatever I want by using oil paint medium. Obviously these experiences became my problem in my art practice. I felt that my creative process becomes like a senior worker in factory, just keeping repeating the similar process everyday. When I see the tools, I know what I can achieve with them, when I see the object; I know what tools I need to use to paint it to become the thing I am looking for. I did not have any chance to think about what could be behind the work and what is the connection between the viewer, the work and the artist. On the other hand, it is a special experience for me, which I had never experienced previously in my art practice.

In my light painting photography, I set up a rule for myself, which is I can not have a plan or an illusion of the final result for my work. I focus on the pure expression process of my feeling and my thoughts. And use this expression to emphasis the spontaneous, automatic and the subconscious creation in my work. It is like I am building up the spiritual communication between the work and my mind. Like Kandinsky said that ‘he felt a new “sound’’ vibrate in his soul. For reason of “inner necessity’’ abstract forms appeared to him to be the only way of expressing this vision.

In the article My Painting, Jackson Pollock said that ‘My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall or the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.

I continue to get further away from the usual painter's tools such as easel, palette, brushes, etc. I prefer sticks, trowels, knives and dripping fluid paint or a heavy impasto with sand, broken glass or other foreign matter added.

When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing. It is only after a sort of 'get acquainted' period that I see what I have been about. I have no fear of making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.’ Kandinsky and Pollock’s words influenced the creation process of my light painting photography.

I use camera and different kinds of light sources to create the light painting work. Like Pollock, there is no traditional easel, stretched canvas, palette and brushes in my light work. The camera becomes my painting brush, light becomes my paint, and I am doing my painting on an invisible canvas: the space. The entire brush stroke is in the space. When I start moving my camera or my light source, the painting starts happening in the space. The brush stroke floats in the space. I feel totally free when I am painting with light in the space, because I do not need to worry about any painting techniques, the composition, the colour matching, the brush stroke and the object, etc., I can fully concentrate on expressing myself by using the spontaneous and the subconscious creation. Just try to let the work come through. When I stop all my actions, the light painting is finished. The audience only can see my original light painting in the special space and the typical time.

The painting process is also like a performance involved action, time and space. The viewer can see I am doing my painting there, but they cannot exactly see the physical painting. The painting process becomes more important than the finished result. Like William Vaughan said that ‘the artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.

In my light painting photography, the photograph captures the mark of my painting. The mark is for approving my work is existed and gives the viewer a physical object of the painting, but the photo is not the actually original work. After all the creative process, the printed photographic paper is a reproduction of my light painting on photographic paper.   


Sculptural light painting:

Janleonardo Woellert and Joerg Miedza use Light Art Performance Photography as their contemporary art form. As one of the first light painters, Gjon Mili used stroboscopic light to capture the motion of everything from dancers to jugglers in a single exposure in the mid 1930’s. His photoflash techniques are still very popular used today in light painting photography. Mili used this technique to study the motion of dancers, musicians, and figure skaters. His creation of photoflash photography work was just his first gift to the light painting world. In the 1940’s Gjon Mili attached small lights to the boots of ice skaters, then he opened the shutter of his camera and created what would be the inspiration for some of the most famous light painting images ever created. In 1949, Mili took some photos about Pablo Picasso did his ‘light drawing’ in the meeting with him at Picasso’s home in the South of France. Picasso drew a centaur in the air and Mili took his photographs in a darkened room, using two cameras, one for side view, and another for front view. By leaving the shutters open. He caught the light streaks swirling through space. Of all of these Drawing the most famous is known as “Picasso Draws a Centaur”. Man Ray is the first artist to explore the light painting techniques. He did an important series “Space Writing” to contribute to light painting photography. In 1935, Man Ray set up a camera to produce his self-portrait. He opened the camera’s shutter and used a small penlight to create a series of swirls and lines in the air.

In 1988, Japanese artist Tokihiro Sato created his well know work: Photo-Respiration that consists of two subsets, Breathing Light and Breathing Shadows. Sato was trained as a sculpture but found that photography better suited his artistic desires. He shoots with an 8×10 camera and his exposures can last up to three hours. Sato received his Masters degree from Tokyo National University. His light painting photographs are held throughout the world in public and private museums including the Guggenheim in New York and Museum of Modern Art in Saitama, Japan.

In his work, Tokihiro Sato uses light tracks to create his sculpture in the space. Each of light track looks like the metal wire being set up in the space, and Sato put a lot of ‘light wire’ in the space in order and accumulate all the tracks together to become his light sculpture. The result of the work is like a massive metal wire sculpture in the room. I found the important point in Tokihiro Sato’s work is that even the result of his work is a photograph, but it is totally different of Gjon Mili and Man Ray’s works. Because Gjon Mili and Man Ray’s light painting works are more like painting or drawing. They create a two-dimensional image in a three-dimensional space, then reproduced on the two-dimensional photograph. So they much more consider their works as a two-dimension finished work. But in Sato’s work, he uses a two-dimensional medium to create his three-dimensional sculpture in the three-dimensional space, then reproduced on photograph. This evolving thinking pushed the boundary of using light as the medium to create artworks. And it opened my mind to further developing my light painting.   

In my opinion, the important point in these artists’ works is the relation between using light as the medium and the photography, because we can easily use photography to catch the light track. Their works inspired me to believe it is possible to paint with light. Actually, light painting photography has been explored for almost one centenary since Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth created their ‘working simplification’ in 1914. But, I do not think that the idea ‘painting with light’ has been developed further enough, as the photographic ‘light painting’ has limitations in that it was only represented in two-dimensional flat surfaces. Photography only captures the action of the tracks of the light moving but does not show the actual light itself. It is like light loses its character’s after being photographed. The viewer cannot feel light itself, it is like we will lose a lot of detail and the rhythm of the real brush strokes when we see a reproduction photographic oil painting. My aim is to use light itself to create my painting.  

I read a book called Light Ballet, which is written by the German artist Otto Piene. Piene uses light from moving torches was projected through grids, thus extending and stimulating the viewer's perception of space. His light work was inspired by László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Space Modulator (1930) and Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924). Otto Piene consecutively developed three forms of ‘light ballet’ in different years: 'archaic light ballet’ (1959) based on torches and perforated cardboard; ‘mechanical light ballet’ (1960) requiring the visitors to operate cranks to set light objects slowly moving; ‘automatic light ballet’ with electrically powered dynamos. While his show was running in the Galerie Schmela, Piene staged in his studio a ‘festival of light’ with performances of different versions of the light ballet. He said that ‘light creates the power and magic of a painting, its richness, eloquence, sensuality, and beauty.’

Light Ballet inspired me to think about the possibility of building a spatial construction to use light itself for creating my work, because in the space presentation, the viewer can see and feel light itself in the space not just from the two-dimensional photograph.

In Otto Piene’s work, I found that the darkness is an important element, which needs to be considered in my light painting. Because I think that the darkness seems can blur the environment and kick out all the chaos and noisy in the space it can provide a quiet environment for the viewer to appreciate the beauty of light. The light is also being enhanced with more magic power in the darkness.

When I first created my light work in the darkness, I had a special experience. The darkness veil and blur the other irrelevant objects such as the edges of wall, ceiling, table, etc. in the dark environment. It provides me a space where I can focus on my work and my thoughts. The low light space gives me the opportunity to hear my inner voice much clear than in the daytime or in a bright space. I can feel my ideas come up my brain and they are like babies who want to be born. So, the only thing I can do it is to keep making my work and express all my feelings and thoughts in the artwork as Kandinsky said ‘because there was no other way I could free myself of certain thoughts (or, perhaps, dreams).’ I also think that light has the magnetically attracted for most life forms especially human being as moths fly towards light at night. The power of light feeds the aspects of our mental, body, spirit and emotion too.

Mirror is a special object for me. It can reflect light in a way that preserves much of its original quality subsequent to its contact with the mirror. Some mirrors also filter out some wavelengths, while preserving other wavelengths in the reflection. This is different from other light-reflecting objects such as stainless steel, aluminium, CD and ceramic that do not preserve much of the original wave signal other than colour and diffuse reflected light. Also, we have different types of mirror, normally plane mirror and curved mirror. Plane mirror has a flat surface, which is better for getting a straight light reflection line. Curved mirror is for producing magnified or diminished images or focus light or simply distort the reflected image.

In my sculptural light painting, I chose the plane mirror to be my painting brush, because I want the light reflection as straight as possible. Because I agree with Kandinsky that line is one of the fundamental element in art and ‘a line is a dot that went for a walk.’ So in my work, the light touch the mirror surface as a dot and then being reflected on the surface as a line. Light from a dot to a line that is my painting action. And the action is an important component in a painting like Picasso mentioned: ‘Action is the foundational key to all success.’ I do not actually apply my physical action on the paint, but my special brush: mirror helps me to reflect my action on the ‘canvas’.   

I use LED as my light source to make my sculptural light painting; the light from the LED is my paint. The mirror is my painting brush that can reflects the light, and the mirror gives me the ability to work with light. My canvas can be wall, wood, polystyrene or other materials.

In my work lullaby in 2013, I use two LED lights as my light sources, one of them is cold white, and another one is warm white. The whole work is like a big light painting on the wall, I call it ‘light fresco’. I set up my mirrors on a wall, which is covered by polystyrene sheets. When the light reflection appears on the wall, the polystyrene gives me an incredible moon-like surface. It reminds me building the texture of oil paint on the canvas. It is a special experience for me, because it is my first time using other medium to create my big painting. I feel like I am doing a painting, but I do not familiar with the medium. When I create the light painting, my painting experiences keep popping up. Fortunately, I can integrate my oil painting experience into my ‘light painting’.

Also, there are many light reflections in my work to create the light illusion. I want the abstract illusion can arouse the viewer about dreams, imaginations, hopes, mystical experience and aspiration for touching the human spirit.


Light, darkness and the eye


Observe the light and admire its beauty. Close your eyes and look: what you have seen doesn’t exist any more, and what you will see does not yet exist. Who remakes it, if he made it is perpetually dying?’ - Leonardo da Vinci


The theme of using light to create artwork has been a preoccupation of artists for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci wrote volumes about the important of light in rendering nature. Romantic artists described the sublime through light. And others, from Russian icon painters to modern artists, have used abstract forms to account for a divine or inner light. None, however, have so fully considered the ‘thingness’ of light itself as James Turrell said that, and how the experience of light reflects the wondrous and complex nature of human perception.

I agree with the concept of the ‘thingness’’ of light itself. I also think about the inherent relationship between the eyes, light and the darkness in my light painting. I find that light can be strongly reflected in the dark space by using a spatial construction like Piene’s light ballet. Our eyes help us to appreciate the beauty of light.

The eye is our vision organ, we use our eyes to focus and detect visible images. Light illuminates the objects and the environment, so we can use our eyes to see them or observe them in detail. If we open our eyes and stay in a dark space, our eyes cannot focus on anything, because there is no light and no object being illuminated. We start to get uncomfortable feeling and lost the sense of safe little by little. So, light seems to help the eyes focus and detect the images. If we open our eyes and stay in the dark space, and there is a lamp or other light source in that space, our eyes will be attracted by the light, because the eyes can focus on an object. And also, our body and mental will be lead to get close to the light.

In my work, the low light space is for reducing the visible environment and the objects in the space for creating a hard focus situation for the viewer’s eyes. Then, the light work illuminates the darkness and gives the eyes an object that can be focused. The purpose is for giving the viewer an immersive experience for enhancing the light painting in the space.

Light has the magnetically attractive for living forms especially in a dark space. For exploring light painting in a space scale, I set up my work in a low light environment for creating a typical environment and an atmosphere for enhancing viewer’s sense of sight to see my work. As James Turrell said that ‘Only when light is reduced does the pupil open and we feel with the eyes’. I think that a low light environment can make the viewer calm down to appreciate the beauty of the light illusion, because the darkness seems can give people a signal about being relax and quiet in that space. It is like people chat loudly before the drama starts in theatre. But when the light turns down, people will become quiet and stop talking. They will focus on the spot light in the stage. The dark environment reduces everything around us but it enhances our sense of sight to make us feel with our eyes. 

In Turrell’s work, the work gives the viewer an accessible experience about light reflection and space. The viewer can get a special experience when they see his work, it is spiritual like Turrell said that ‘light affects the physical state, the mental and emotional state and the spiritual state. The mind is what assembles what’s seen by the eyes to create the reality within which we live. The body is completely sensitive to light. It is through the skin that we drink light as Vitamin D. Light is a food for the body, mind and soul.’

I believe that human’s eye is the most exposed part of the brain. And it looks like the brain. We are very aware of the sensitivity of the eye. We are not made for the light outside. We are made for twilight. We are made for the light of the cave. So I think that my light painting should be happening in a space with darkness, because that suits to us.

The pupil becomes small when it is a noonday with a good sunlight, almost closed. We need to squint and wear the dark glasses. It is with lower light our pupil opens, and feeling comes out of the eye as touch. We touch and caress with the eyes. It is then we have the more sensual feeling with sight. The pupil opens and we can feel with the eyes when light is reduced. So, like my light painting ‘Echo’ in 2014, it does not come alive until the sunset, they will exist more as sculptures and architectural forms in the daytime or bright space, but they awake when we have lower levels of light.

I believe that people can be treated and healed with light. It is clear that human being needs light to exist.



From a traditional painter to become a contemporary light painter, I believe it is a big changing and challenge for my art career and my life. For myself, as an Asian student studied in an eastern philosophy and perspective environment but being trained to have a western painting background, and then conducting my art practice in a western social environment. I found that this special experience and background give me more options and perspectives to create my work. I also believe that being a contemporary artist, we need to open and accept different and new mediums and new ideas in our art practice.

Painting with light is my on going research project. I have used different art forms to develop and explore this idea, such as photography, sculptural and spatial construction, but I still can find there are many potentials and possibilities in working with my new painting medium: light. I think it is because light is a special medium that we can see it and we can feel it but we cannot touch it in the world. Light is visible but untouchable. Light is richness, eloquence, sensuality and beauty; it can create the power and magic of a painting. I really enjoy working with light. It makes me rethink my purpose to be an artist and I want to keep using this beautiful and mystery medium to create my work.



Janleonardo Woellert and Joerg Miedza. Painting with Light: Light Art Performance Photography. Santa Barbara, Germany, CA: Rocky Nook, 2011. Print.

Kandinsky: Painting on glass, New York: S. R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1966. Print.

Merry A. Foresta. Man Ray. London, Thames and Hudson, 1989. Print.

“My Painting”, The Pollock-Krasner foundation (Winter 1947-48): 78-83. Print.

William Vaughan . German Romantic Painting, London, Yale University Press, 1994. Print.

Light painting history. Light Painting Photography. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

Pablo Picasso draws with light. Life magazine, Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

James Turrell. Milano: Charta NMAC, 2009. Print