Back to main page for
Painting With Light

Painting With Light
by Rick Doble


I am *NOT* against photography as we know it. However, I am for a broader definition and wider experimentation that includes not only traditional photography but also images that use the "light-writing" ability of photography to its maximum, the ability to create less sharp images that are more expressive, to "paint with light."

The digital camera has the power to transform photography from a realistic medium into a thoroughly contemporary one which can explore many of the spatial realms, concepts and passions of modern and contemporary painting.

In the later part of the 1800s the realism of photography freed painting to explore light and color. The Impressionists and those who followed used that freedom to create exciting and radically new imagery.

One thing which has never been really worked out is how photography has completely altered figurative painting.
Francis Bacon, Interview, 1963

Around the year 1900, Einstein, Freud and the advent of pervasive technology and machinery signaled a distinct change in human civilization. These radical ideas and technology were a clear break from the past which had been a world composed of farming, horses and disease. This new manmade world required a new vision - the work of modern artists. So in the early part of the 20th century, painters began to explore space, time and expression with the work of the cubists, futurists, abstractionists and expressionists.
Read quotes from various artists

The fourth dimension was a highly popular concept in the early 20th century and figured in the theoretical underpinnings of nearly every Modern art movement.
(From a course at Texas Tech University
Spring 1996, Bruce Clarke

I believe that, with the digital camera, photography has now come full circle. It can break away from the totally realistic image and explore these same themes of modern painting in new and purely photographic ways. The principle method for achieving this will be via long timed exposures.

According to Einstein the basic structure of our world is space-time and things exist in a space-time continuum, a world of four dimensions: height, width, depth plus time.

...that fourth dimension which my whole being is seeking.
Max Beckmann
Read quotes from various artists

Photography is particularly capable of exploring this dimension. A photographic exposure results from a combination of space and time since it is caused by an amount of light (light that is usually reflected from a space) for a duration of time. Photographs taken with a slow shutter speed can record a subject in motion, the existence of a subject over a duration of time.

But even more than the ideas of Einstein, motion is the essence of life. To be alive is to move. In fact death is often determined by a lack of movement such as no breathing and no pulse. Yet it is sharp, clear, frozen images -- still photographs -- that we cling to in our family albums and on posters. While this "frozen moment in time" is marvelous, it is, in a sense, unrealistic since life is always moving on.

Exactitude is not the truth.
L'exactitude n'est pas la vérité.

Henri Matisse, 1947

So the photography of motion is more than just another technique or style, more than a method, it is a way to record on light sensitive material the stuff of life. What more could an artist ask of a medium?

Although photographing motion with long exposures was technically possible before digital by using traditional methods with film and chemical darkroom techniques, it was not really practical. The long lag between taking a picture and seeing the resulting image meant that it was virtually impossible to learn and to adjust to changing situations.

The digital camera solves many of these problems (but not all) and has new capabilities which are not entirely obvious. For example, with the immediate feedback of the digital camera, an artist can see within a second the results of his/her latest efforts and then adjust accordingly. There are a lot of variables which must be controled such as low light, long exposure, camera movement or subject movement. Therefore the ability to view what was just shot is critical. The "instant replay" on the LCD screen at the back of most digital cameras gives the photographer the missing tool to achieve the rapid development of very unusual but totally photographic work. The digital images created are a result of basic camera controls and are *NOT* due to computer manipulation.

Photo-graphy literally means
light (photo) writing (graphy).
To "write with light" or to "paint with light"
is to use the photographic process to its fullest

There are a lot of variables. The possibilities are simple and complex, endless and mind boggling. For example, a shorter time will create sharper more recognizable images, longer times will lead to more blurred or abstract images. There is a point where the subject can completely disappear or not be recognizable. This imagery is relative to the rapidity of movement, both subject and camera, and its regularity.

For example, if I take photographs of dancers, they may stand more or less in one place but their bodies can move somewhat randomly. In this case I anchor the camera to one spot and shoot with a shutter speed that slightly blurs their movements. This is a quite different from taking a photo of a speeding go-cart. The go-cart follows a predictable path at a fairly even speed. In this case I hand hold the camera and pan with the go-cart making it relatively sharp compared to the blurred background.

Figures were never for me a compact mass
but like a transparent construction.

Alberto Giacometti, Letter to Pierre Matisse, 1947

This online exhibit demonstrates the possibilities through actual photographs, explains the technical considerations, and explores the artistic vision that is possible.

Please look at the following essays for more about this online exhibit.

  1. Technical Notes
  2. Links to modern art movements and artists
  3. Quotations from numerous modern artists
  4. Inspiration from modern artists of the past
    especially Nicolas DeStaël
  5. Truth to materials

Back to main page for
Painting With Light

Rick Doble's Full Home Page
with over 1000 online images

Send me an e-mail message.

© Copyright 2003 by Richard deGaris Doble
All rights reserved.