Why Would an Artist Choose OLED?

Art is about combining materials and technology in a way that creates objects that reflect a vision or an idea. In some instances, artists find it necessary to innovate their own technology, or to apply one in a way unintended by the originator in order to achieve the end result they desire. Art is about experimentation and tinkering.

In my previous lives, I have done this many times – from using lithography films loaded into a 35mm camera for extremely long exposures for motion capture, to soldering house wiring together with a motorcycle fog lamp to make a sculpture.

This image (1978) was taken using 25ASA high contrast lithograph film cut and modified to work in a 35mm camera to facilitate extreme exposure times in full sunlight conditions.
This small light (1987) was made from copper house wire, plumbing solder, and a PAR36 motorcycle fog lamp.

Artistic inspiration is generally not bound by the physical reality it springs from. In many cases, it is impossible to create what the imagination or an idea brings forth. Yet, an artist that has become too involved in the workings and machinations of creation, often find themselves lost and frustrated. For these reasons, there is always a level of compromise. Available resources, time, and skill set combine to shape the universe within which an artist creates. Some of these limitations are by choice – as is the case for those who choose only to paint, or sculpt in clay – others are just the limitations of the real world.

Light Source Selection

I have been in lighting for 40 years, from virtually every angle – including design of lighting in spaces, design of products for manufacture, use of light to cure resins or disinfect water, and in artwork. I see light in things, in spaces, and in the world – it’s now just a part of what I see.

In my various artistic creations, I have used the light sources that attract me the most based on their quality of light, ease of use, and form factor. In the past, this has included PAR lamps, MR16, MR11, halogen lamps of every shape, LED retrofit lamps, LED light engines, COB LEDs, and star board LEDs dating back to the Luxeon K2 LED and Lamina BL3000. When you are a lighting addict, you can’t help but play with the technology.

From the beginning, I found that low voltage sources were preferable for the intimate scale portable lights I enjoy making. 12V through 48V is inherently safe, so exposed wires are not an issue. However, when LEDs arrived on the scene, the need for drivers, series/parallel circuiting, heat sinks, and the often messy wiring of controls to provide some level of dimming, all created challenges that caused me to spend more time working around the light source support gear than creating the design itself.

My first LED sculpture (2004) included Nichia LEDs on custom circuit boards, a machined heat sink, and two drivers, put together with the help of a college (Don Brandt). While the end result was acceptable, the process for its creation was not sustainable or inspiring.

Later work (2010) embraced the need for thermal management (to support COB LEDs) into the design itself was satisfying, but somewhat limiting. I found myself constantly design artistic heat sinks and LED surrounds, as priority over other real vision of what I wanted to produce.

LEDs have another liability when it comes to sculptural work. They are developed to serve general illumination, in products of greater scale, and located at a larger distance from the occupant than what I need for the work I do. The optics available are rarely useable, the process of creating custom optics, diffusers, and required light modifying features is too involved for one-off pieces that are never to be tooled for production. Most LEDs are not suitable for direct view, and the necessary steps for integrating lower power discrete LEDs populated on circuit boards, with matching drivers, etc. of low enough current to realize the light levels needed in small objects, that have dimming capability, has been a frustration for 15 years. My intent is not to be a lighting fixture manufacturer, I just want to make artwork that is lighted. There is a big difference. One (product manufacture) is supported by the electronics industry well, the other (artistic use of LED) is not even recognized – for obvious reasons.

In 2020, when I contemplated returning to my real passion for lighted object creation with Lumenique, I decided the first thing that needed to be resolved was the light source issue. I contemplated returning to my roots in low voltage halogen, a source that has always been easy to work with. However, that source has serious issues of its own, in both heat and need for lamp replacement, that is almost as limiting and problematic as LEDs. I needed to find a better source, or I was facing real issues in realizing my vision.

OLEDs Fit

I was aware of OLED technology and had experimented with it on several occasions. My personal work space at my Lumenique office was lighted with OLEDs. There are three primary attributes to OLED that make it a great choice for intimate scale lighted objects.

The first attribute is light quality. OLED delivers excellent color qualities. In 3000K the color is very close to halogen lighting, and when dimmed, has a natural tendency to become warmer. OLED technology does not have the liability of blue light production and red light deficit of conventional LED technology, so the light quality feels less artificial.

The second attribute of OLED, is the diffuse surface illuminance, with no need for additional optic, diffuser, space between LED and optic, edge light configuration, or films and overlays to achieve uniformity. While a COB LED with an LES of .50″ might be throttled down to just 200 lumens, the brightness is distributed over just .2 square inches, for a luminous brightness of 1,000 lumens per square inch. That’s too bright to view directly. Conversely, an OLED panel with a luminous surface 4″ x 4″, or 16 square inches, delivering 200 lumens, presents a luminous brightness of just 12.5 lumens per square inch. Comfortable. This luminous brightness is also perfectly uniform, with no dots or issues of uniformity.

The third attribute of OLED, is the very simply light source packaging. The panels are just 0.09″ thick, or about the thickness of two quarters, require no heat sink, have integrated wiring, and are faced with soft etched hard glass. With OLEDWorks OLEDs, I have a choice between 4.75″ round, 5.25″ square, and 2.75 x 9.75 rectangles, in simple panels that generate almost no heat. I also purchase from them a matched driver, that is extremely compact, readily programmed for various outputs, and dimmable. This is literally the simplest light source form factor I have used in the last 20 years.

Since most of my work is architecturally or mechanically inspired, the form factors and luminous qualities of the OLED panels are a great fit to the shapes I create.

The assortment of sizes and shapes, and luminous qualities of the panels affords me the latitude I need to create, without spending all of my time working on drivers, heat sinks, LED arrays, diffusers, etc… The OLED panels fit scales from small to very large. Note that this sneak preview is 5 of 16 pieces being completed now for launch soon.

This is all just getting started, with 16 works in process of completion to be released very soon. I have been experimenting with the scale of end product I can build, from minimal to very large. I find that the versatility of the light sources causes me less of an issue than the surrounding 3D printed components, which are made from many parts bonded, and finished to create the end product. OLEDs are providing me a versatile light source that is tunable to the output I need, with minimal hassle. This is exactly what I needed.

I also believe that there is a significant opportunity for doing commissioned work to suit specific requests, as the technique I am using to make these lighted objects is capable of producing almost anything. Further, combining 3D Printing with more conventional machining and fabrication, means the potential for creating is wide open.

There will also be opportunities for combining conventional LED technology with OLEDs to produce unique effects, where the two technologies compliment one another.

So, why would an artist choose OLED? The answer for me is quite simple. Because it works so well.

A Final Note

Look, I get that I am not the typical artist. My approach is perhaps too technical for the art scene, and too niche for the commodity lighting business. As many now advise, I am following my passion. This puts me in a unique middle universe between art and product design. In my many years on this spinning little ball we call earth, I cannot discard what I have been, nor is there peace without satisfying the need to create.

I also like things close-in and down to earth. My preference is for simple living and conservation through re-use, over high style, exploitation and conspicuous consumption.

I’d like to be thought of as a “new-age folk art sculptor of lighted objects”. While traditional folk art uses found objects, nails, rust and paint, I use 3D Printing, manual machining, hand finishing, and light.

My ultimate goal is to discover and grow an audience (and patronage) who appreciate this approach and enjoy the product of my existence on the border between left-brain analytical and right-brain artist – where I both suffer the conflict and am energized by it.

If you are someone this is interesting to, or know someone who might be, please reach out.

Author: kwillmorth

I am an artist in lighted objects and product designer.

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