The Original Light Painters: Man Ray & Gjon Mili

At COAST Products, we are proud of our light painters—those contemporary artists who use COAST LED flashlights to make innovative art. Rather than using paint, these artists pair time-lapse photography and flashlights to create incredible images. As our blog loyal readers know, we sponsor one light painter, Jason D. Page, by equipping him with the powerful LED lights he needs to create his stunning nighttime landscapes and portraits. This post takes a look at a couple of light painting pioneers, Man Ray and Gjon Mili. Not everyone knows about these artists, so a little background information might be handy.

Man Ray, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890. He was an enigmatic Modernist from New York who later moved to Paris, where he spent most of his career. There, he made contributions to the Dada and Surrealist movements, both part of the Avant-garde art scene of the late teens and early 1920s.

Man Ray had a long and productive career spanning over 20 years. Although he mostly considered himself a painter, he was better known for his photography, and for his experimental Dada-esque style, which was radically anti-art. As part of this movement Man Ray made his own art objects and photographed them, and was one of the first artists to use an airbrush. For his 1918 version of “Rope Dancer” he combined a spray gun technique with pen drawing. In 1935, he produced the first known light painting in a series called “Space Writing” that combined the use of a small penlight with open-shutter photography.

Man Ray, Les Larmes, 1932 © copyright Man Ray

Our second influential light painter is Gjon Mili, who is famous for his friendship with Pablo Picasso, and for aiding Picasso in producing the first well-known light drawings. An engineer by trade, Mili developed a process for flash photography that quite similar to the processes used today. Mili’s major claim to fame was his work as a freelance photographer for Life magazine. Photography assignments took him around the world to capture portraits of celebrities, including Picasso.

In 1949, Mili visited Picasso in Southern France. He showed Picasso some of his recent work attaching lights to figure skaters, and photographing the results. Seeing this work, Picasso was inspired to pick up a penlight and draw in the air, while Mili set up his camera and captured the images, now called Picasso’s “Light Drawings.”

via Tumblr

Light painting has come a long way since the days of Man Ray and Gjon Mili, but the future of light painting is indeed bright, with artists such as Jason D. Page on the scene. With enough practice and photographic know-how, anyone can make light painting art with LED lights. Indeed, a single LED light is far more powerful than any incandescent bulb available to Ray, Mili, or Picasso. With LED lighting technology, modern light painters can illuminate nearly any nighttime scene. Give it a try someday—or, if you aren’t artistically inclined, be sure to follow and “like” artists like Jason D. Page.


[ Photo by: Haka004, on Flickr, via CC License ] and [ Photo by: pds209, on Flickr, via CC License ]

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