Light Painting World Alliance - Light is Paint, Night is Canvas

                               !_ARTICLE COVER 1st phto Nieps 1826

Painting with light as a process was born together with photography. More precisely - photography was originally images drawn by sunlight!
             The very name of the first imprinted images attests to this - they were called "heliography" that is literally "painted the sun." The author of these heliographs was Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (France), and the first heliograph in the world was made on a plate of lead with pewter fusion in 1826. The exposure time was several hours, because the sensitivity of this method was initially very low and strongly dependent on the intensity of the light source, which at that time could only be the sun.

               Today we call this technique "long exposure shooting" and we have many fine examples of modern photography made this way. As we know, in such cases all changeable and movable features become blurred as opposed to solid features which remain sharp. Look at the daguerreotype of James Valentine «The Falls of Clyde, Bonnington Falls», which was taken in 1871

01_James Valentine «The Falls of Clyde, Bonnington Falls»

Are these not the same frozen water jets, which are repeated in a number of photographs of modern masters of long exposure?

Drawing with light became more acceptable with the gradual decrease in the time it took to correctly expose daguerreotypes (and subsequently - prints on colloidal solutions) taking up to several minutes or even seconds. But where are the light drawings of the time? Yes, in the archives we can’t find proof of a moving  light source being used intentionally as a creative technique, but it is not difficult to imagine that random light traces occurred naturally (from a fire torch or reflection in a piece of the mirror) but were perceived  differently than in our days ... Since its introduction and for many years to come, photography was not recognized as an expression of aesthetic creativity. The artists of that time regarded the light painting as mechanical copy of reality. At the same time, the opportunity that photos provided of becoming full and accurate documents was recognized very early. For such a purpose, the deviation from realism was clearly perceived as a lack of accurateness, like an error - with all its consequences (these photos were not stored, the plates were washed off for later use).

=  1839. William Henry Fox Talbot (England), inventor of the negative-positive process of photography makes a series of so-called "photogenic drawings". Process is as follows: fit a variety of subjects on the light-sensitive paper and expose to the sun. The exposure of photographic paper produces a "light drawing" - a clear outline of the subject. For example, plant leaves (in some places a little transparent) leave great quality prints:

                           W. H. Fox Talbot dated March 1839


= In 1843 a good friend of Talbot, Anna Atkins (by the way - the first professional woman photographer!) publishes a book "photogenic drawings" with images of marine algae:


The first experiments of Talbot's lensless photography , later called "photograms", formed the basis of artistic experiments of the masters of the "Bauhaus" in the early 20th century. 

=   As time went on, in 1884 photographer Thomas Eakins (USA) shot a long exposure of a jumping man, using the technique we today call a "multi-exposure." During exposure with the same plate Eakins opens access of light into the lens by stroboscopic shutter eight  times in a short period of time. Gjon Mili later used the same technique in the mid-30s of the twentieth century.




=   In 1889 Etienne-Jules Marey (France) in collaboration with Georges Demeny was apparently the first in the history of mankind consciously  drawing with light during the study of human movement: 

                              04_Marey Demeny

In this photo we see a trail of incandescent bulbs attached to the Demeny's body while he was moving in front of the camera. Of course, it was a photo document and not a work of art, but for us this is the first time in this history that a photo had been made to intentionally produce a visible trace of a movable light source.


=    The Italian Anton Giulio Bragaglia at the beginning of 1911 establishes a new direction in the Futurist art photography - fotodinamism. Bragaglia shoots at slow shutter speeds, moving his models in the frame - a technique that is widely used today by all light painters.  Bragaglia's technique demonstrated convincingly the possibility to record the dynamic characteristics of light in the shooting (such as speed and direction of movement of light-emitting objects - whether it's a flashlight or illuminated bow).

Bragaglia _Mano in moto, 1911

                             bragaglia suonatore di violino, 1913


=    In 1914 the Frank Gilbreth (USA) attaches small light bulbs to staff's sleeves and shot the labor process at long exposure, hoping to get a card of hand's movements of the workers. The target again is not art, but the scientific demonstration of a process by means of visible traces left on film by moving electric lights.




Looking  ahead a little, we note that in 1924, in Soviet Russia, the head of the Central Institute of Labor Alex Gastev also conducted research on the ergonomics of work processes. Gastev used the same method as Gilbret:

Alexei Gastev_01


=    In 1919 photographer Christian Schad (Germany) created abstract collages, using the techniques of William Talbot with already clear artistic objectives.

                             06_Кристиан Шад 1919


=    A full-fledged artistic experience of the light painting from 1922 to 1936 should be considered the Hungarian artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy improved on the"photogram"  technique by , beginning to use semi-transparent light-refracting objects and adding to natural light ambience the brushstrokes of a flashlight:



In addition, Moholy-Nagy first started taking pictures at long exposures of moving luminous (or reflective) parts of machinery: 



This method was dubbed the «lumino kinetic art». Known picture Moholy-Nagy, executed in 1936, which is called «Light Painting on Hinged Celluloid»:


This is probably the first documented definition of our art as «light painting». Clearly visible in the picture is a complete and rather complicated real light drawing!

                    Light painting has taken place as an independent branch of art photography! 

= 1930s Look at this rare spyrograph photo by Wynn Bullock, recognized American photographer:

Wynn Bullock spyrograph

Later, during the early 60s, Bullock departed from black-and-white imagery and produced a major body of work that he referred to as "Color Light Abstractions". For him, these photographs represented an in-depth exploration of light, manifesting his belief that light is a great force at the heart of all being, "perhaps," as he said, "the most profound truth in the universe."

Wynn Bullock_01  Wynn Bullock_02


=   Followed by Moholy-Nagy in 1935, the American avant-garde artist Man Ray (real name Emmanuel Radnitsky, child to Russian emigrants) continued artistic experiments with drawing by light - even in the literal sense of the word. Man Ray, apparently, the first active use of technology now called "light pen" ("light brush") - this technique was as follows. Mobile source of light (a small lamp on a sufficient length of wire or a miniature flashlight) moved by hand of the artist in space , describing imaginary figures - as if the artist painted by brush on a canvas. At slow shutter speeds the trajectory of a light bulb was recorded as aglowing trail, hanging unsupported in the air - so that is why Man Ray called his work "space writing».



Man Ray made several self-portraits decorated with light curls. However, the creative potential of this artistic device is fully revealed only in the twenty-first century. Running a little ahead, in 2009 the famous American photographer Ellen Carey, a follower of Man Ray, carefully examined his self-portrait and found amid the chaos of light lines the master's autograph! Admittedly, doing face-to-camera  picture , we obtain a mirror reflection of our image. Carey made a mirror image of Man Ray's artwork - and there they were, the large letters M and R! A little more attention to the abstract at first glance figure, and Ellen has opened an amazing sight - a completely distinct signature  «Man Ray»:


Man Ray encoded his own alias in his work! And thus, became the first light painter who wrote letters ...

= American abstract photographer Francis Bruguiere in 1936, experimenting with a lensless imaging technology, makes this photogram:



=     American with Ukrainian roots, Nathan Lerner was studied  in the "New Bauhaus" by Moholy-Nagy in the late thirties. In 1938-39 Lerner has done some interesting pictures:

                                      Nathan Lerner, Light Tapestry 1938

Car lights (this is probably the first experience of photography of the now so popular trace of car lights)

                          Nathan Lerner Car Light Study7. 1939


=      American photographer Barbara Morgan in 1940, was probably the first light painter who attempted to reflect the rhythmic structure of light flow in her calligraphic arabesques.

                             Barbara_Morgan Cadenza 1940

                               Barbara_Morgan - Samadhi 1940

                                                       Barbara Morgan Light Drawing, Emanations

Running a little ahead, we note that Morgan was interested in light painting in 1967, as this photo testifies:

                         Barbara Morgan - Artificial Life from the Laboratory 1967


=    Laszlo Moholy-Nagy continued his experiments in art photography in the forties:

                 Blue penlight drawing 1940s

                                           Moholy Nagy_Blue penlight drawing 1940s

                       Pink traffic stream 1940s

                                          Moholy Nagy_Pink traffic stream 1940s


= 1941 American photographer, Margaret Bourke-White being in Soviet Union while WW-II was started, made amazing rare photographs in night Moscow, where we can see antiaircraft gunners at work - with huge trails over the cityscape, in the heart of Moscow Kremlin:

Margaret Bourke-White_Central Moscow with Antiaircraft Gunners_1941.Id_10261


=     The light painting story continues as an increasingly brighter star in the sky - Albanian Gjon Mili, who emigrated to the United States. In 1937 Mili became acquainted with Professor Harold Edgerton, who was the first to use strobe photography and created such famous images as a "drop of milk", "bullet cutting through playing card" and many others. Gjon Mili, inspired by such possibilities, developed on the creative aspect of strobo-photo with great enthusiasm and has become one of the most famous photographers in America. He showed the world the beauty of stopped movement in a single frame (upper photo - in 1942, lower - 1945).



Shooting skaters during workout on a long exposure, Mili sticks to their skates light bulbs and takes pictures that are, perhaps for the first time in light painting widely popular among his contemporaries - through publication in the magazine "LIFE" (in these pictures - figure skater Carol Lynne, 1945):




=    It is these pictures (and co-operation with "LIFE") that led to Mili undertaking in in 1949 the most ambitious artistic breakthroughs in light painting perception  - he turned to Pablo Picasso for new opportunities and photographed maestro's light drawings!




Many other great pictures with light made by Picasso look here.


= 1949 Henri Matisse (France) with a little help of Gjon Mili drew this light painting image.



=    Shortly before Picasso and Miles have made these pictures, an American Jack Delano (born Ovcharov, child from Ukrainian emigrants), photographed on a train track switchman making the "stop" signal with a bright flashlight (1943)

Jack Delano _Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad switchman signaling stop, Calumet City, Illinois, 1943


=     Also shortly before Picasso's photosession , in 1946 the famous American photographer Harry Callahan apparently did the first photograph made with the artistic "camera toss" technique.

                                Harry_Callahan_Camera Movement on Flashlight 1946


=    In 1949 an American of German descent, famous photographer Andreas Feininger first thought of photographing amusement rides with rotating parts, equipped with electric bulbs:

                              Andreas Feininger, The Gyro Globe Coney Island, New York, 1949

                    Andreas Feininger, The Hurricane, Coney Island, New York, 1949

Feininger also known by classical "kinetic" snapshot of flying toy helicopter with a bulb on the blades:



=   in 1953Swiss-born American Herbert Matter, founder of graphic collages in advertising, devised a fun test - he changed his jacket and pants in front of the camera with the open shutter. Light, of course, was switched off, and at the wrists and ankles of photographer there were secured with bulbs. Here's the result:

                             Herbert Matter, Photograph (Man changing his clothes in a dark room, a number of electric bulbs fastened to his body 1953


= 1954  Robert Doisenau (France) was well-known photojournalist, here we present his long exposure image:

         Robert Doisneau 1954


Some sources indicate that a picture below taken by Frenchman George Mathieu in 1957, is also an example of light painting. However, we were unable to find any actual evidence - Mathieu was well known as calligraphist, he made his paintings with oil and was not addicted to photography. Most likely this photo - an example of photomontage. However - a great photomontage!



= 1967 English photographer Alan Jaras made first experiments of light art using light refraction patterns - 'refractographs' as he calls them. Alan was experimenting using the 'photogram' technique inspired by William Henry Fox Talbot's 'Photogenic Drawings' and the photograms of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray using the traditional photographic darkroom enlarger. Here is one of his first refractographs:

Alan says: “I was particularly interested in working with transparent objects and especially the 'caustic patterns' that the light from the enlarger lamp made on the paper such as these patterns from water and soap bubbles, but soon I changed to photographing objects on to 35mm B/W film so that I could make enlargement prints. I found that the fracture surfaces of large pieces of broken glass produced very interesting light patterns.


I then explored other interests for nearly 40 years until 2006 when I decided to continue again with my refraction photography. This time I used colour film. I removed the lens from a 35mm SLR camera, placed a glass object over the lens aperture and, in the dark using a single static beam of light, recorded the pattern directly on to the colour film”.

            Jaras4_o*       Jaras6  


=  1968. Barbara Blondeau (USA) received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1961. Barbara finished her Masters degree in 1968 and moved to Philadelphia to teach at the Moore College of Art. She experimented with photograms, strobe lights, different winding speeds and masking techniques. You can see her long exposure photos with moving model.



Also Blondeau was a teacher and a friend of David Lebe, who was inspired by Barbara into photograms and what he calls “light drawings”.


= 1974  Scientists started to work in our field! American engineer and inventor Steve Mann presented his Sequential Wave Imprinting Machine, which in fact was first Light Wand!



Check this link to discover his incredible image "Computational Lightpainting" (which he called "Dusting" or "Abakography"). Also it is very interesting that Steve was inventor of HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography!


=    In 1975, American photographer Ellen Carey published her light painted self-portraits:

                            Ellen Carey Black Hole in Space (series) 1975 Ellen Carey Black Hole in Space (series) 1975_02


Since then, the story of light painting will continued in part two.

List of artists in the order of artwork years:

1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (France)
1839 William Henry Fox Talbot (England)
1843 Anna Atkins (England)
1884 Thomas Eakins (USA)
1889 Etienne-Jules Marey and Georges Demeny (France)
1911 Anton Giulio Bragaglia (Italy)
1914 Frank Gilbreth (USA)
1919 Christian Schad (Germany)
1922-1943 Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (Hungary)
1924 Alex Gastev (USSR)
1930s Wynn Bullock (USA)
1935 Man Ray (USA)
1936 Francis Bruguiere (USA)
1938-1939 Nathan Lerner (USA)
1940 Barbara Morgan (USA)
1941 Margaret Bourke-White (USA)
1942-1945 Gjon Mili (USA)
1943 Jack Delano (USA)
1946 Harry Callahan (USA)
1949 Pablo Picasso and Gjon Mili
1949 Henri Matisse and Gjon Mili
1949 Andreas Feininger (USA)
1953 Herbert Matter (USA)
1954 Robert Doisneau (France)
1967 Alan Jaras (UK)
1968 Barbara Blondeau (USA)
1974 Steve Mann (USA)
1975 Ellen Carey (USA)

…and so on :) 

The author used information and photographs from public sources:

The copyrights to photos belong to the authors.

The article was prepared by Sergey Churkin - Flickr and Facebook

Copying or reproduction of text, in whole or in part, without the consent of the author is prohibited.

I thank to Hugo Baptista for his kind help in english version of the text!

Also I thank for support to: 

Atton Conrad O'Murchadha        

Gregory Chalenko        

Felipe Ferreira



Dazler Lightpainting
Thank you for all of these great artistic and ephemeral moments.

Daniel Miller
Comment by Daniel Miller
A walk trough the history of light painting. Great article!I had no idea that I had something in common with Picasso :D

Comment by Unknown
It's great to know the History of modern day Art forms. Great Job!

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