The String of Light

The lighting industry is a faceted and muti-layered universe. However, the bond that holds it all together is that lighting exists only to serve human kind. To the consternation of technologists and engineers behind the SSL revolution, humans (other than those in the are in the business of engineering and technology) are not particularly concerned with metrics, formulas, or objective measurement. Humans are emotional animals, that respond to light and shadow, who feel before they see, and absorb what they see as real, even when it isn’t. To this end, artistry in light remains a strong factor in the human condition, even when those experiencing it are unable to express its influence, or even acknowledge its impact. This underlying reality is what causes so many metrics addicts to go mad, as they attempt to quantify and control a market that is in fact, uncontrollable. The illusion of control is the fallacious reality we live in as humans. We cannot express our needs for an emotionally, soul energizing, comfortable or pleasing existence in metric terms. We use metrics to act as proxy for these needs, by slicing the qualitative into bits, in the hope that if we add them up, the outcome will be satisfying. The fact that so many quantitative lighting installation successes are such dire failures in delivering human satisfaction, is proof of the fallacy of placing objective measures in front of art. For example, no matter how hard the academics try to define the quality of color, we find the end result short of the mark. Why? Because the subjectivity of light and how it is perceived in the real applied world confounds the out-of-context metrics so coveted by those intent on making the art of light an engineering function.

But I am not an engineer-ist. I am more interested in the subjective, the art of light, even in working environments. I personally believe that you could literally toss the entirety of metric definitions of light, and create better results based on delivering what humans want in their spaces, through understanding how the art of light feeds their need for a visually satisfying experience – in all walks of life. In this, I’ve frequently wondered why I am even here at all.

Perhaps I figured that out…

An Epiphany of Sorts

During a recent visit to MOWA (Museum of Wisconsin Art), I was captured by a painting of a picnic in the shade, with dappled of light over the party enjoying family, with a few chickens thrown in to keep the kids busy. It was a wonderful work of expressing light that it inspired a moment where I saw the string that has connected my professional and personal path over time. I’ve traveled a road guided by passion for combining spur of the moment ideas, art, design, light, engineering, technology, and appetite for taking on new things and learning new forms of expression. The following is a reminiscence of  this, with a thumb nail early example to highlight each. My version of string theory.

Pen and Ink stippling, 1978

Roots in 2D – 1970 to Present

2D artists rarely draw or paint light into a finished piece. Light is the white background you start with. Onto that, media is applied to delineate shadows, darkness and shading that defines shapes and space. There may be instances where you add highlights or lighting effect details with an eraser, or white pigment, but for the most part, light is the ever present background, from which you use subtractive techniques to produce picture. Whether light is represented as direct, ambient, or reflective is generally irrelevant, as all art is a 2D reflective representation. The source of light is presented in context to the viewing plane the artist chooses, and brightness differences are within the constraints of the highest and lowest reflective qualities of the media employed.  While the light applied to a finished work is impacted by the light applied to it, the general terms of highlight and shadow, and contrast represented, are not changed significantly, as these are integral to the work itself.

Restaurant Feature Mockup 1978

A Life of Graphics – 1977 to present

Graphics is a functional branch of 2D art, that adds a layer of direct message to a visual work. This is a more literal form of art, where, rather than allow the observer to draw their own conclusion or message from a work, the message is delivered in a way that eliminates personal interpretation to communicate a specific and targeted point. In this, many forms of graphics do not include a great deal of expression of light, other than to enhance the presence and attractiveness of artwork to capture attention.

Motorcycle Love 1980

Adventures in Photography 1978 to present

Cameras are light recorders. Film and/or pixel receptors begin in a dark state, where black is the underlying background representing an absence of information. Exposure to light of various intensities and color add information where there is none – to create images. This is the polar opposite of how pigment artists work, yet the end result is the same. The resulting images are presented in 2D, either as prints, restricted to the reflective qualities of the media employed, or displayed on a back-lighted screen, where illuminance presents a higher degree of potential contrast between highlight and shadow, but remain constrained by the light source employed and artwork itself.

Blue Eye
Blue Eye 2012

Tangles with Digital Artistry – 1996 to present

Digital artists have the greatest flexibility in how they approach image creation. The choice between starting from a dark background or lighted background is unique, and creates opportunities to generate imagery that is simultaneously photographic and 2D media in nature. However, the end product shares the same limitations as well. Printed products are limited in brightness and contrast to the chosen media, digital display products presented on lighted screens are equally constrained by the display’s capabilities and the settings end user have monitors set at.

Kart Cycle 2
Kartcycle 2002

Dabbling in Sculpture and 3D Arts – 1995 to present

As a sculpture artist, solid and translucent materials are employed to reflect and/or transmit light to produce an object that blocks, reflects, or diffuses light striking it, to produce a finished form that changes in character depending on how light is applied to it, and the viewing angle of the observer. In this case, the contrast between highlight and shadow, and presentation of color, are dependent on the lighting conditions under which the object is displayed. The artist, for the most part, has little control of this, adding a dynamic interaction that is under the control of the displayer of the art itself. This is an important distinction. The display and viewing of 3D works is dynamic and manipulable by the observer. One can choose to experience a sculpture from a single vantage point, or at fixed multiple angles, or by walk-around method, where every angle is explored. Applied lighting can also be used to control viewing perceptions, direct observers to select viewing angles, enhance or soften contrast, exaggerate detail, or obliterate it. None of these are within the control of the artist.

GNAC Spa 1988

A Love of Lighting as Art – 1980 to present

Lighting artists utilize the art form of shaping the perception of spaces and objects within spaces, by applying both light and shadow with specific intent to shape the visual environment for observers. The work of the lighting artist is to shape the finished environment by applying light to space as a digital artist might, in three dimensional space, to enhance, soften, exaggerate, guide, and clarify space for those who occupy it. This includes careful application of shadow and contrast, and control of visual confusion that detracts from the intended experience. Lighting art demands complete control of glare and brightness, dazzle, color interaction with surfaces, textural dynamics, visibility, and the dynamic experience of the final product as it is viewed from the intended range of experiences for observers. Since lighting artists can only add and subtract illuminance, they are dependent on tight coordination with those who are creating the surfaces targeted. This includes understanding architectural form and intent, as well as surface qualities, and the composite goals of the design team as a whole. In many ways, lighting artists provide the cohesive glue between the forms and surfaces presented by the physical objects placed in the environment, and the eyes of observers occupying the finished space. Further, since lighting has such a large impact on how people react emotionally, and lighting energy content (spectral) impacts human physiological response, the inclusion of such considerations is essential to lighting artists work. The goal of the lighting artist is to create imagery and sense of space, and objects within, that also generates a desired emotional response, supported by techniques that enhance the human experience, which includes feeling of well being as much as it does actual support of good health. The emotional connection to any space is more affected by the light applied to it than any other factor. For this reason, lighting-as-art is an extremely powerful discipline…. that is as rarely applied as installation of fine art in the spaces most of us experience on a regular basis.

Visa Lab 1995

Work in Lighting Design as Lighting Engineering – 1980 to present

Lighting artistry contrasts starkly with lighting engineering, which considers light a utility, to be applied as a fill of spacial volumes to achieve a metrically computed, prescribed illuminance value on target surfaces – within the constraints of energy budgets – controlled to produce utilitarian functionality. The majority of “Lighting Design” today is not artistic, it is an engineering function, regardless of how “creative” those involved believe themselves to be. Even in the case of those practicing “human centric” design, there is very little actual art involved, just more parametric requirements to be included in the design assignment.

Tasca 2005

Lighting Product Design and Engineering – 1989 to present

Lighting product serves multi-faceted purposes. Lighting products must deliver the light needed to create art and serve quantitative and qualitative engineering functions. Products must survive use as intended. Products must also be usable to the intended users, and be honest to their purpose and intent. The art of product design combines sensitivity to the user experience, as much as to manufacturing processes, and the need to derive a profit from the effort.

Timberline SDL2a 1997

Industrial Design – 1995 to present

Venturing away from light completely, but founded on the experience of connecting the visual impact of a product with its function and interaction with the end user of the products in mind.

Face of Liberty 1988

The Freedom of Choice – Always

Above all else, the reason I have had these experiences, is founded on exercising a freedom of choice. Rather than bind myself to a hard line career of escalating income pursuits, collection of toys and cash, I’ve remained open, to this day, to the pursuit of new and different. To that end, while I derive my personal joy from making things for myself and others, and helping others find light to fulfill their own pursuits. Were all this is leading is in the shadows, where it belongs. Somewhere along the way, I just stopped asking what I would be when I grow up, and allowed myself to just be. Yet, I do  find it intriguing that light has emerged as the connective string, whether pursued directly, or indirectly by its inescapable influence. Perhaps that is my own secret sauce and value add for those I work with? That string does include a strong bond to use of metrics, research, and quantitative measures as much as it has connections to qualitative and subjective considerations. The trick, from my view, is not in establishing one as superior to the other, but to define when one or the other, or the composite of both, is most appropriate to the task in hand. In balance, I believe there are greater opportunities in taking a chance on artistic expression, over adhering to strict objective measures. But, that should be obvious at this point – even to me.

Pulley – first sold work 1987

It Never Ends






Author: kwillmorth

I am an artist in lighted objects and product designer.