The Substance of Painting is Light: A Brief Discussion of Light in Art

The Art Genome Project
Nov 21, 2012 4:20PM

“The substance of painting is light.”

-Andre Derain

“Light is not so much something that reveals, as it is itself the revelation.”

-James Turrell

To say that most artists think about light as it pertains to the creation and perception of their work is an understatement. For hundreds of years, artists as seemingly different as Joahnnes Vermeer and James Turrell have been investigating how light affects not only their work but also the perception and experience of their work.

I’d like to—can’t help it—shed some light on how we have dealt with light as it pertains to The Art Genome Project. 

In the early days of Artsy—when there were less than one thousand works in our database—the genome team created one “Light” gene. Light was intended to capture any and all artists and works that dealt with the subject of light. Yes, it was a general idea, but we felt it could well identify works that prioritized a concentration on light. A couple of months later, we added an “appearance gene” titled “Luminous/Halo Effect.” (For more on our gene types, seethis earlier post.)

Nearly two years later (in January 2012), our “Light” gene had swelled to 1200+ artworks with another 115 in “Luminous/Halo Effect.” In some ways, we should have anticipated this happening, since one could argue that most artists’ work—especially painters (as Derain suggests)—are involved in some respect with light. With so many works lumped together, searches were becoming equally muddy and we decided that the “Light” gene required further clarification. After a thorough review of the roughly 1500 works, we realized that most works fell into three categories: 

- Paintings in which the artist is concerned with light as it is visually affecting the world around them (ex. Impressionist paintings such as Pierre Auguste-Renoir’s A Girl with a Watering Can, 1876Tonalism worksPeter Paul Rubens). 

- Abstract sculptures or installations containing neon/LED (such as works by Dan Flavin) or material or environments intended to intensify or foreground the effects of light (such as works by California Light and Space artist Peter Alexander, or Mon Levinson’s plexiglass wall hangings)).

- Images that literally depict sunlight or skyscapes (such as David Ligare’s Landscape, 2010 or Robert Longo’s Study for Underwater Lights, 2010). 

With this in mind, we concluded that the most meaningful (and satisfying) result to our users was to group the second and third categories together into a new gene titled “Light as Subject.” 

Into this “Light as Subject” gene we included both abstract Dan Flavin works alongside Robert Longo’s Study for Underwater Lights, 2010. Although both works look different, they both take light as their subject matter in an specific and visually apparent way. To accompany this new subject matter gene, we created a new medium gene simply titled “Light,” which captures all works that incorporate such things as LED light, Flame/Fire, Lightbulb, Neon, etc. 

In conjunction with these two new genes, we decided against creating a gene that would incorporate works which concern the visual effect of light on the world. It seemed way too broad and in this way less informative as a gene than others might be. However, in the future we may consider again the possibility for having such a gene, especially due to its art-historical significance. We are still keeping track of these artists and artworks for further research. 

-Alessandra Henderson, Content Partner Manager/Specialist and Researcher on The Art Genome Project

The Art Genome Project