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What Is Light Art?

By Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Updated May 23, 2024
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Light art is art that is created partially or entirely with one or more light sources. The art usually creates a specific image. In some cases, however, the light is used to create an overall artistic effect rather than to depict something else.

One of the oldest examples of light art is found in fireworks displays, which have been used in Asia for thousands of years. In the middle ages and renaissance, artists began using stained glass with regularity, such as is commonly found in cathedrals. Although the glass in itself is artistic, it does not truly come alive until the light from the sun shines through the glass, projecting the colors onto nearby floors and walls. Another good example is shadow puppetry. None of these forms of light art require any electricity, which makes them distinct from more modern light art.

Modern art using light generally uses some form of light bulb or diode to create an effect or image. Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are perhaps the most common light source artists use. This is largely because LEDs come in a wide palette of colors, and because LEDs are less expensive to replace and run compared to other bulbs. Other types of lights artists use frequently include strobe lights, strip lights and fiber optics.

A popular form of light art is laser lighting. This form of light art uses lasers, projected at different angles, to produce shapes and images. It often is used as an enhancing theatrical effect at concerts and similar events, although some artists put on laser light shows with the lighting as the primary focus. A related form of light art is light projection, in which the artist uses a projector to magnify a changing, real-time image and put it on a large surface such as a building wall. These are temporary forms of light art that do not leave any traces once the artist is done working.

Another type of art using light is light painting. This is a photography technique that uses long exposure to create and capture streams of light on film. Once the artist has done this, he can create as many prints of the resulting image as he wants, preserving the creation. It thus is a permanent form of light art.

Art utilizing light often involves displays constructed of intricate series of circuits and bulbs. These displays sometimes are created for a specific event, such as a store's grand opening. They also may be permanent fixtures, however, being incorporated directly into architecture. Neon store lights are an example of this kind of display art, as art light sculptures.

Art displays using light have two major technical considerations. First, the circuits upon which the display is based can wear out. When this happens, the entire display often needs to be taken apart so that the circuits can be repaired. The delicate nature of the circuits often requires specialized electricians, so repairs can be costly. Secondly, artists have to design their work so that the entire display does not stop working if one bulb goes out, and so that a bad bulb is easily accessible for replacement.

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Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Sep 06, 2014

@pleonasm - Technically, every artwork based on people looking at it is light art, because you can't see it without light bouncing off the paint or sculpture or whatever else.

When you've got artists who work with lasers and with painting light on long exposure photographs I guess you need to make a stricter definition of the term.

By pleonasm — On Sep 06, 2014

@clintflint - I saw an exhibition a couple of years ago where the artist had filled a room with these little mechanical flowers that sent off beams of light and when you interacted with the lights, the flowers would move or produce sounds. I imagine that counts as being light art as well, even though the light itself wasn't the main point of the visual display.

I've also seen artists who set up colored glass or plastic so that light goes through it in patterns and the patterns are supposed to be the art, which I think is really cool. Although I guess, in its roots, that's just a variation of stained glass windows, or even sun pictures that you can hang up in normal windows.

By clintflint — On Sep 05, 2014

I'd never really thought about how many different kinds of art are made with different colored lights. I always thought of it as a modern invention that people create with lasers and things like that, not being inclusive of stained glass and fireworks.

I love fireworks and I wish they were considered to be more of an art form in modern times, rather than just being relatively generic with slight regional variations.

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