Light in Art

Light in Art

Light has always been a subject of particular significance in works of art. Artists have manipulated light, as both a subject and a medium, to showcase rich shadows, highlights, depth, and symbolism. Contemporary American artist James Turrell aptly said, “Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation”.

Light first started to become a subject in 17th century Baroque Art. Caravaggio, the master of chiaroscuro, contrasted light and shadow to emulate charged atmospheres that had a profound influence on the new Baroque style. His influence can be seen in the works of Rubens and Rembrandt, who used chiaroscuro to heighten a dramatic depth in their masterpieces.

Light began to play a prominent role in Baroque art in the 17th century. It was masterfully expressed through the chiaroscuro technique, which used intense contrasts between light and shadow to enhance the dramatic character of the compositions. The focused gradation of colors resulted in a realistic illustration of the figures. Leonardo da Vinci was a pioneer of chiaroscuro, while Caravaggio and Rembrandt were its main exponents.

The depiction of light in works of art was originally done in a two-dimensional way. Nevertheless, the rendering of light and its contrast with shadow was so realistic that even today, if one observes them, one has the illusion that they are somehow illuminated.

Caravaggio, The Calling of Saint Matthew. A typical example of the use of chiaroscouro. Caravaggio painted the figures on a dark background, illuminating the protagonists of the composition at spatial points.
Georges de La Tour, The Repentant Magdalen


Rembrandt van Rijn, St. Peter in Prison, 1631. The light source is not visible in the painting and this is something that gives more emphasis to the theme of the painting. The light implies another world, celestial.⁠ Image Source:


The 1860s saw the emergence of the Impressionist movement, which further broadened artists’ approaches to light. The discovery of pre-processed paints (similar to those used today) marked a shift in the use of light. In particular, it enabled artists to be in the direct presence of their subject and to transfer the sunlight they perceived onto their canvases. It is worth noting that previously each painter was forced to create the colours himself by mixing the various materials.

Impressionism emphasized the way light is reflected on objects. Artists such as Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir focused on the accurate depiction of light and its fluctuation in time and space. They played with sunlight, its color variations and its ability to emit an endless array of rich hues in natural environments.

Claude Monet, Impression, Soleil Levant, 1872, Marmottan Museum, Paris


Vincent Van Gogh, The starry night

The above paintings are two typical examples of impressionism, as there is a particular emphasis on the representation of light.

The invention of the light bulb in 1879 enabled a new revolutionary way of using light, not only as a subject but also as a medium. In 1930, light was used in its purest form by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, the first artist to create a light sculpture based on objects as part of the Dada movement. He projected coloured and white light into his sculpture entitled, Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light-Space Modulator), causing a series of shadow effects as the work rotated.

Moholy-Nagy’s goal was to control the interaction of light and mechanical movements to create a new perception of space. Light-Space Modulator is in fact the first sculpture to feature light as its subject. For the first time, light becomes the key element of the architectural composition. It negotiates space and light, and the way these two elements interact with each other. Light-Space Modulator ended up being a key work in the history of kinetic art and a powerful contribution to Moholy-Nagy’s pioneering work on the perception of space, time and movement.

Light Prop for an Electric Stage (Light-Space Modulator), Lazlo Moholy-Nagy

From the movement of kinetic art came the movement of minimalism. Minimalist artist Dan Flavin created art with light only after completing the Icon Series in 1968. He worked with fluorescent light tubes in a palette of hues that included red, blue, green, pink, yellow, ultraviolet and four different whites, playing with light as it relates to sculpture, movement and various spaces.


The Light and Space Movement was started by artists living in Los Angeles in the 1960s. Artists such as James Turrell, Eric Orr, Robert Irwin, Mary Corse and Doug Wheeler worked by directing the flow of natural light, incorporating artificial light into objects or architecture, or playing with light using transparent, translucent or reflective materials. The focus of their work was to activate the viewer’s sensory and psychological experience under specific conditions. Turrell, who helped spread this movement worldwide, summed up his philosophy in the words: “We eat the light, we drink it through our skin”.

Since the 1960s, James Turrell has produced an extensive body of work that offers profound revelations about the perception and materiality of light. With their refined formal language and quiet, almost reverent atmosphere, his installations celebrate the visual and emotional effects of luminosity. James Turrell, a leading figure in the Light and Space movement, has dedicated his practice to what he considers perceptual art, investigating the essence of light.

Turrell creates installations with coloured light and holograms that create awe-inspiring visual illusions. In his work, light hides, highlights, deceives. It becomes a game through his creative imagination and his good knowledge of mathematics. Turrell’s works may look like cubes, pyramids or tunnels, while they are simply composed of light.

One of the world’s most important large-scale artworks is located in the desert of northern Arizona, where artist James Turrell has spent decades shaping the landscape into a captivating observatory. His creation, Roden Crater, is a masterpiece of light and perception inside an inactive volcano.

The Roden Crater, Alpha (East) Tunnel. Image Source:


James Turrell, Guggenheim Museum. Image Source:

Today, many artists continue to use light itself as art. Light art appears in multiple forms of media such as sculpture, installation and performance. Artists use color, angles, and shadows to create light art. This art form is more prevalent than one might think, as neon signs, holographic projections, abstract light fixtures and light sculptures are abundant in most urban areas.

Lighting installation στο HUB Lighting & Innovation by Kafkas, στα πλαίσια ενός διαγωνισμού στον οποίο συμμετείχαν σπουδαστές του ΑΚΤΟ.
Copenhagen Denmark – Light tunnel or gate of light installation consists of many triangular gates lit by led bright lights.

The use of light in art extends in various currents and manifests itself in different forms. The mere fact that the light around us dictates the shape and form we perceive is enough to justify the importance of learning how it has been manipulated and represented over time. Contemporary artists such as Grimanesa Amorós, Jim Campbell, Maja Petrić, Olafur Eliasson and others have incorporated new technology to play with the age-old fascination humans have with art and light. Through experimentation with different hues and shapes, and the interweaving of light with materials such as glass tubes and aluminium, light art challenges the way we perceive things around us – the environment, spaces and people. The universal existence of light is what makes it fascinating and will undoubtedly continue to shape the work of artists for centuries to come.

In summary…

Art is a means of human’s expression that reflects the particular era in which the human being finds himself. It is a powerful tool in the hands of every artist, as art shapes opinions, conveys messages and influences the public opinion.

Light, on the other hand, has existed since the beginning of time and is vital to the human being. It is something he is constantly concerned with and will always find ways to incorporate light into his works and capture it artistically.

Artists, as it is well known, are influenced by their time and this is perfectly obvious if one observes their works. Thus, depending on the circumstances of each era and the means available to the artists at any given time, the way in which they render light in art is redefined. Taking a brief review, according to the above, the two-dimensional representation of light has now been succeeded by three-dimensional representation. The modern era is characterized by the spatial rendering of light, the so-called installations, and technology is an important assistant in this.

Wondering what the coming seasons will bring and what will be the future of light in art?

Text Editor: Myrto Tempelopoulou – Lighting Consultant




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