Light as Subject


“Ideas are to literature what light is to painting.” —Paul Bourget

The accurate rendering of light and shadow is one of the most important techniques in the history of Western painting, as well as a continually essential tenet of photography. Fittingly, light itself—its manipulation, its expert rendering, its natural beauty—is often the dominant focus of works of art. Light is a consistent concern in works that foreground chiaroscuro techniques, such as those by Titian or Caravaggio. Impressionism made light a central focus, in particular capturing its changing effects on a landscape. After the invention of photography (sometimes called “light-drawing”), artists still worked towards perfecting the various ways in which the play of light and shadow fall across a face, the city, or the landscape. In the 1960s and '70s, the Light and Space Movement investigated light’s effect on the viewer and the environment; works by Robert Irwin and James Turrell, for example, used light beams and lightboxes as a material in geometric, minimalist installations, extracting everything else from the environment to isolate one's perception of space and light.