Makerspace Project: Light Painting

This article originally appeared as Makerspace Project: Light Painting at Cosplay, Comics, and Geek Culture In Libraries.

Light Painting

Light painting is the practice of using LEDs, flashlights, or other light-emitting objects to draw designs and patterns in the air, essentially using the world around them as a canvas to create beautiful and ephemeral works of art. If you’re not sure what you can do with light painting, Sprint made a commercial with many possible drawings, animated together using stop-motion which was a big undertaking, but you might be able to do something smaller-scale in your library. If a workshop participant can imagine how to draw something, whether on paper or on a canvas, it can be drawn in the air using light painting techniques.

Light painting bottles can be used with a long-exposure camera or software like Glowdoodle My Light Painting to simulate spray painting or “tagging” surfaces in the library. (You can use flashlights, glowsticks, or any other light-emitting object, too, but LEDs in bottles that look or feel like spraypaint cans might produce the best results.) If your community has a lot of tagging going on, or offers contests or programs that create spraypaint art, they may be a built-in audience for a light painting program. Since everything is drawn in the air, there’s no penalty or “wasted” materials for not getting the picture right, making light painting an attractive option for those who may not feel the most confident in their artistic skills.

Building light painting bottles is a DIY project - you'll have to assemble everything yourself, using instructions like Light Graffiti Cans for Glowdoodle.

This is a great opportunity for kids and teens to get acquainted with a soldering iron for making connections between wires, for learning how to use power tools and sharp edges responsibly (as you’ll need to drill holes in bottle caps or the bottles themselves to affix the switches and the LEDs, and you have to cut the bottom off a bottle to stuff all the important components inside) as well as to teach many principles of circuitry and electricity. If you have previously done Squishy Circuits with your users, many of the things learned in those sessions will be applicable here, like how to build closed circuits and avoid shorts.

There will be some new learning beyond Squishy Circuits with this project. For one thing, it’s all about actual wires, which will need to be wire-stripped and then soldered together, either wire-to-wire or wire-to-component, so there’s some useful learning to be had about heat dissipation (my dad, the electrical engineer, suggests clipping metal alligator clips to component leads (the legs coming out of components like LEDs) to provide a buffer that can help avoid overheating the circuits while soldering the connections), about the necessary requirements of resistance and how to calculate it with Ohm’s Law (Voltage = Current x Resistance), as instructions provided like the Instructables one may assume that the pieces purchased are self-regulating or assume that the people building the light painting bottles already know the relevant electrical engineering knowledge. Since I did not know these things the first time I built light painting bottles, I burnt out a couple LEDs before calling Dad to ask what I was doing wrong. So when you purchase your materials, make sure you know what you’re getting to know if you need other components to make your circuit work, and understand what order you may need to put the components in to avoid burning out materials. If for no other reason than to avoid a smug look on the face of the electronics store clerk when you have to slink back in for resistors they told you were needed the first time.

If the thought of using solder is worrisome, because your attendees aren’t mature enough to be able to handle the soldering iron, I can attest that it's possible to do the entire project using electrical tape and wire twisting to hold the connections together, and hot glue to hold the switches and LEDs in place on their bottles, which may require grown-up supervision or you doing that step for the project. The entire circuit can be assembled with just wire twisting to ensure that you have everything in the right place, and then your attendees can tape or solder to their heart’s content.

After the program where the painters get built, then comes the program where they get used, which is a lot of fun for your artistic and creative users. For best results in using these painting cans, you'll want as dark a room as possible, and possibly the people painting wearing black or dark clothes as well, so that clothing, faces, or other bright reflective things don't interfere with the designs being made over the exposure.

I've also found that the closer a color is to red, the more it tends to "splash" onto the screen or film, making thicker, less sharp lines than the colors more toward the blue end of the spectrum. Some of the fun in making these items is in figuring out what sort of designs can be made. Other fun involves coating the screen as much as possible in light, or in creating works of art in the air. (Light painting like this is a test of spatial awareness and memory – while you may be able to see what’s already been done on screen, knowing where to place the next line in the drawing takes skill and knowledge. For the very ambitious, individual drawings could be used as frames in an animation (as the commercial did) and put together with a software program so that the actual picture created has motion and direction to it.

Once built, your light painting bottles will last as long as the batteries do. If you built them in such a way that exchanging or removing the batteries is easy when needed, your components will last you through many, many programs. Happy painting!