A new way of representing light in art

w. a. roberts

(Includes animated diagram of colour-rationale together with brief historical context and commentary)

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Brief background: the representation of light in art

(a new way of painting light appears below on this page.)

If one looks at the ways light has been represented in art, several connections emerge between the histories of art and science. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, light was being studied by scientists and painted by artists in two quite distinct ways. Firstly, James Clerk Maxwell had developed a theory of (and equations which described) the wave-like properties of light, and in his theory unified the observed electric and magnetic field effects of light: light is an electromagnetic wave. Around the same time, Monet was carefully observing the fleeting characteristics of light at a certain time of day in his renowned Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral series depicting these 'transformations of a subject' wrought by the interaction of light and form. Interestingly, the way he painted light shimmering around the haystacks gives one the impression that he could almost literally see the waves Maxwell had described mathematically. The mirage-like, rippling halo of light around the haystacks (ordinarily on the fringe of visibility) is brought by Monet into the realm of the physical and material through paint and pigment. Layered, ...weaving and zig-zagging in tantalising concord with the form of haystacks ...yet each stroke characterised by its own quirkish irregular spark and spirit. Formed yet fuzzy, for the wave has no discreteness of edge: it achieves this 'illusion of separateness' through a kind of wholistic summation of smaller individual 'wavelets' (brushstrokes). Monet recognised this 'inner oscillation' or 'jostling' of nature, of light itself, and which he so poignantly translated with the swish and pirouette of brush.

Seurat, on the other hand, was painting at a similar time and in the same country, yet painted light in an altogether different manner. [He was really mixing colours in the viewer's eye, but it is not unreasonable to look at his art from the point of view of "how light was painted" at that time in history.] He painted light not as waves, but as particles, myriad dots of colour. It is indeed remarkable that around this time scientists had (independently) discovered a particle-like aspect of light through experiments which looked at the effects of light shining on things in the laboratory: If, for example, you shone a light on a metal, electrons in the metal were ejected or 'thrown off' the metal's surface in 'step-wise' increments even though the incoming light's frequency and amplitude were varied smoothly. The 'wave-theory of light' was inadequate to explain the laboratory-observed effects of varying the frequency (colour) and/or the intensity (amplitude) of the incoming light. There were 'ceilings' (limits) on the energy levels of ejected electrons even if the scientists repeatedly increased the intensity of the light-source shining on the metal. Yet the energy of the ejected electrons did rise if you increased the frequency of the light (altered its colour in the direction of the violet end of the spectrum). This was dubbed the photo-electric effect . Einstein (famous for his Special and General Theories of Relativity) was awarded the Nobel Prize for his explanation of the observed 'photo-electric' effect in which he proposed that light consisted of small 'particles' or 'packets' of energy (later named 'photons' by the physical chemist, Gilbert Lewis). This was a tremendous scientific realisation of the poetic record of light as particles of discrete colour (energy) within the paintings of Seurat.

Light had both wave-like properties and particle-like properties, and these 'complementary' aspects of light had been beautifully paralleled within the history of art, seen especially within the works of Monet and Seurat.

...a new way of representing or painting light

The way colours have been related in the paintings shown on the previous page represent light in a way that differs from both Monet and Seurat, and yet at the same time relates to theirs and likewise to the history of science. We turn again to Einstein who later in his career found that matter and energy are simply different forms of the same thing. You can convert one into the other. In the paintings of light at right and on the previous page, one aspect of light (brightness or dimness) is signified by another aspect of light (colour). The colours are chosen according to their relative energies within the spectrum, and this unifies the scene as a record of light mediated through colour. Colour here is used as a metaphor of light's interaction with the material forms. In this sense there is a poetic connection to the matter-energy equivalence of Einstein. Technically, the amplitude properties of light (brightness/lightness) have been modulated into the wavelength/frequency characteristics of light (colour).

You can easily understand what is going on if you imagine a grey-scale (from black-through-every-shade-of-grey, to white) being 'mapped' onto the colour-spectrum (from red through orange through yellow through green through blue through violet). (see animated diagram below) The reason I (at first) mapped the black end of the grey-scale to the red end of the spectrum, is that red is the lowest-energy colour in the visible spectrum, and black on the grey-scale is the tone representing the least reflection of light by an object. Thus areas in the scene or subject which appeared black or very dark were painted red. In other words I observed the relative lightness or brightness of an area or object (relative to its neighbours and the whole scene) and chose a colour which corresponded to this level or position on the colour spectrum. Therefore, by the same reasoning, the lightest areas of the scene were painted violet.

The effect of painting with colour in this way is that the whole scene seems to resonate with a concern of light rather than as simply 'brightly coloured' paintings (cf the Fauves, who were not primarily concerned with light, but the expressive power of colour). It seems the human mind intuitively registers a 'sense of light' because the colours have been arranged according to a principle of light in the first instance. It is as if the brain, as in the Universe more generally, resounds to natural (tempered) ratios, and natural 'consonances', natural or 'numerical' sequences and collections of things and events, and is often able to pick up patterns or resonances intuitively for similar and somewhat 'circular' reasons.

My dream is of a future visual art-language which is musical in principle and interconnected through a new fluid and dynamic logic. The small step presented here (in these colour-modulation paintings) of orientating or aligning colours according to changes in luminance or brightness is like a simple poem, a modal song, whose rhyming couplet structure points to the future, to the emergence of a new and exciting means of expression, a new visual language of unimagined resonance, a visual extension to the languages of music, mathematics, and words, and which perhaps may one day embrace them all.

wayne roberts, © 28 June, 2004 (also see article revision notes below)

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What about expression in painting and isn't this too 'deterministic'?

Style in art: beyond mannerism and its variants

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Documented revisions to this web page:
19 May 2003: [no revision to text.] Improved HTML-table structure that sets out page and also styled typeface via CSS instead of with font tag

Notes, mini-bibliography to this section, and further reading


painting light through colour, Low Tide Cancale

Low Tide Cancale
© copyright 1995 Wayne Roberts. All rights reserved.
Acrylic on paper 39 x 49 cm.
Private collection

more paintings employing this colour modulation

representing light through colour, watercolour by Wayne Roberts

St Agnes Provence
© copyright 1995 Wayne Roberts.
All rights reserved.
collection I & J Lester



Astronomer's Days

   Astronomer's Day
   © copyright 2000 Wayne Roberts
   Acrylic on canvas panel
   93cm x 120cm
   the private collection of N. & S.