Jane Gosney

Painting with Light

“Painting with Light was first reproduced in Gosney’s book “Reflections on Light””

This piece was originally a lecture about the use of light sources in contemporary art or “light sculpture”. The lecture was first given at The Serpentine Gallery then repeated to The Art and Architecture Group. To enable the reader to understand the theme with fewer  illustrations some of the text has changed.
Part of my aspiration in setting up WSP Lighting was to contribute to discussions in the world of design by writing and lecturing about Light . In this lecture I have chosen to look at developments in 20th century art which use lamp and lighting technology.  The Serpentine Gallery was the setting for the lecture, as helping to complete the lighting design was one of my first tasks when  WSP Lighting was established in 1996 . John Miller and Partners Architects designed the refurbishment of The Gallery with integrated engineering by WSP.

It was fascinating to see “behind the scenes” of the gallery and to meet the Gallery Director Julia Peyton Jones. She took a keen personal interest in the day to day work on site. There were a series of tests to check all the luminaire designs for performance before the lighting was signed off so some twenty mock ups were done. Not only the walls for picture hanging were of interest in the galleries all the architectural lighting of the building both interior and exterior was evaluated in this way. Much consideration was also given to lighting the sculptures by Iain Hamilton Finlay in the garden: the circle outside the entrance, the tree plaque and the benches.

There was a Bridget Riley painting exhibition on at the time of the lecture in The Serpentine Gallery. It was wonderful to have that backdrop as it was possible to refer to real examples of contemporary art, not just photographs,  to show how pattern and colour allow the artist to play games with depth and perspective. Riley’s stripes and spirals in both brightly coloured and monochrome pieces take the eye beyond the picture plane. Many of the artists working with light experiment and help us experience a sense of interior space or create a dramatised silhouette to define form.

In pre 20th century art the colours of the candle flame and the palette of the sky has been copied to represent light in painting both in oil and in water colour media. Looking at well known masters, such as Turner , lemon paint often floods his canvas to show us sunlight. Monet’s water lilies are part of a display of painting of reflected light on the water. The detail of the flowers and pond is secondary to the light – a strong image he could appreciate and capture on canvas. One of the boldest painters on 20th century is Mark Rothko. In his work it is possible to imagine a horizon with graduated colour suggesting light but there is not pretence to represent real objects or landscape and so to “Painting with Light”.

My lecture slides did not represent a comprehensive review of a movement in art or offer a strict art historical interpretation of given periods but were favourites . The selection for this piece is as eclectic : I have elected to use photographs of a large outdoor pieces in Rotterdam and South Shields where light defines form with both surface washes and lines of light. Lamps and light projection in vivid colours offer a new palette to the late 20th century artist. I have also included photographs of an artist’s studio where transparent and reflective materials are also much in use.

There are four basic lighting techniques used to create an infinite variety of effects on architecture or in a pure sculpture. They are washes of light, lines of light, glowing effects and projection.

The first, washes of light,can be made with the humble fluorescent lamp. Peter Struyker uses the simplest technology in The Rotterdam Architecture Museum (1993) where coloured washes from the soffit to floor level are created to offer an enhanced sense of perspective to some wide grey concrete columns at night. These columns form an arcade under the main building. The light from this art piece is all that is needed in this area to walk in safety at night. Mixing of primary colours of light means that only three coloured lamps in blue, red and green are required to produce cyan, yellow and magenta. A combination of switching and dimming or “fading” produces the effects shown in different colour combinations. By day all that can be seen of the effect is the strips of opal diffuser which cover the coloured lamp troughs recessed into the slab above the column face.

The use of cold cathode the (tubular system which makes defined lines of light) is the second material for “Painters with Light”. The material can be formed with imperceptible abutments into infinitely long lines, is available in as many as fifty colors with a range of tube diameters of 15-25mm. The tubes can be formed into complex shapes.

Originally this was for signage and used very high voltages but technology has come a long way since the early “neon” (Neon was one of the gases in the tube to make a red colour) and the association with  the world of theatre. Some artists have made art to depict the signage of urban life. At Tate Modern currently on display hung on a wall is a Bruce Nauman piece from 1983: “Human Life/Life Death/ Knows Doesn’t Know. It is about 2 meters square and uses signage to offer a message. This artwork is about primarily about text not space.

Many pieces by Martin Richman, a London based artist, offer a sense of “space beyond” by creating a sense of depth by glowing luminaires inside a building but also they define form with colours. One piece using both effects is South Shields Ferry Terminal, a WSP structure, which I worked on with Martin. Our discussions were about how the pontoon would appear reflected in the water, so the pavilions were lit to glow white. We also talked about how to define the “edge” of the structure, particularly the arm like bascule weight. “The Bascule” is silhouetted in profile in blue. Seen from the river bank it is a gateway on to the bridge to the waiting room in the pavilions on the pontoon deck. Here a contrasting orange kite shape makes an arch between the two blue “arms”. In the daytime when the colour disappears the lamps are not visible either.

The idea of an interior glow is the third type of effect which preoccupies lighting artists. Martin Richman when working on a whole building uses interior light both white and coloured to express building form he also works in a way which is echoed by other artist working in light in installations. This type of image has been a preoccupation of James Turrell and was on show at The Hayward Gallery a few years ago. Gallery installations, not existing buildings, created a “window” or “door” in one plane, often edged with a line of cold cathode. A complimentary colour washed the room behind so creating a sense of invitation into a space beyond.

On a visit to Martin’s studio I saw a range of transparent films, lenses perforated metal and Sheets of wire mesh all of which shape and change light. In my own schemes cold cathode is generally used in a cornice to create a wash of light rather than a   pure hard edged line with bare lamps but  a sample board is shown from a scheme for a tower with a “rainbow” of colour to show how real illuminated samples can be mixed and displayed for selection. Here the reflected light on the structure behind is an important part of the “stripe” effect.

The fourth technique is projection. The most exciting lighting in the world of rock on stage is best exemplified in the work of Mark Fisher who  produces sets for The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. It is easy to imagine those pieces full of colour and surprise on a vast scale. Jean Michel Jarre has taken the idea of projecting onto a back drop – even further where architecture is the  canvas and on every type of Lighting including fireworks is used to paint a picture. In his concerts in China and Houston images were projected on multi – storey buildings. Giant photographs made the buildings look like enormous newspapers or “billboards”.

Advertisers have been quick to follow the idea of “branding” buildings but artists also see this canvas in interesting ways but let us hope that that is not the only growth in the use of projection.

I hope that more artists, sculptors, stage designers architects and lighting designers will share their combined skills to produce exciting pieces for our galleries and open spaces either urban areas or parkland.


“Spectrum” : a Transparency computer graphic on glass

© Jane Gosney www.janegosney.co.uk edited June 2012

Also by Jane Gosney: Three Invisible Walls

The Author

Jane Gosney was born in Sheffield in 1961. She studied architecture at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London in the early 1980’s She followed this by being the first Bartlett architecture graduate to go on to take the MSc in Light and Lighting. It was the combination of these two learning experiences that was to set the scene for her career in lighting.

Jane first worked as a lighting specialist with YRM then as an independent designer with a strong emphasis on daylighting. In 1996 she was appointed by WSP to set up an in-house lighting practice within a multi-disciplinary engineering group. Her design work spans both daylighting and electric lighting for a wide range of building types. She also writes about lighting for Architecture Today, Light and The Art and Architecture Journal.
Jane was elected a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts in 2002.

In parallel with her professional career Jane has developed a fascination for the interaction of light, landscape and sculpture. This is demonstrated in her affection for St Ives and in particular the works of the late Dame Barbara Hepworth who lived and worked there. This interest has manifested itself in her writings and photographic work which form this book. The book is a portrait of her work so far.

David Loe

Next: Sam Jury