MA Research Paper – Kinetic Drawing with Light

MA ResearchPaper – Kinectic Drawing With Light. 

Camberwell College of Arts / University of the Arts London.


SAMADI / Light Drawing / 1940 / Barbara Morgan


Our first perception of any artwork can change over time as we discover and gather more information about the art piece, it’s creator or creators, the medium, and also the influences surrounding it. In the mid 1960s while an art student in London, I made a profound personal discovery which opened a door to a new kind of drawing and painting medium, and technique. It was the photograph of Picasso drawing a centaur with light which was featured in Life Magazine in1950, and was taken by the photographer Gjon Mili. Within this last year my opinion of that photograph and its’ creators has changed after discovering a series of relatively unknown photographs by the artist and photographer Barbara Morgan.
This paper examines a pivotal point in art history when drawing, painting, sculpture and photography came together to create a new art medium, Kinetic Drawing with Light.
Key Points
• Two exceptional and outstanding photographers, Barbara Morgan and Gjon Mili, both working in the same area of photography and in    the same time period.
• Both are interested with light and capturing movement, and both are conducting experiments with it.
• They both choose to collaborate with famous artists, Morgan with Martha Graham, Mili with Picasso.
• Morgan creates and photographs her first kinetic drawings with light in 1940, the very same year she captures her iconic image of                  Martha Graham.
• Publication in Life magazine of ‘Picasso’s drawings with light’, taken by Gjon Mili 1950. Picasso is seen by most to be the inventor of this  relatively new art medium.

Key Words and Artists: Light, Drawing, Kinetic, , Movement, Dance, Barbara Morgan, Gjon Mili, Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham, Man Ray, Life Magazine.

Unknown-3 Picasso Drawing with Light / Madoura Pottery,1949 / Gjon Mili

Introduction: Picasso’s Drawing with Light
There is something very magical about the photograph of Pablo Picasso which first appeared as part of a three-page spread in the Life Magazine on the 30th of January, 1950. It captures the very second of a drawing’s creation by the artist, a drawing that appears to be conjured up out of thin air! Picasso’s intent gaze is directed to, and through his levitating drawing of light towards the viewer. It is an outstanding and captivating image that increased Picasso’s international pop-star status to a much greater and grander level, an iconic artist appearing in a iconic magazine. But the true wizard behind this image was not Picasso.
It was the creative and innovative photographer Gjon Mili who had been experimenting with lighting since 1927, and had proved to be a genius with it. Life Magazine, which Mili worked for, sent him to the South of France to meet Picasso at his home, and capture some photographs of him. Arranging a meeting with the world famous artist turned out to be more problematic for Mili, as he wrote…

‘When I asked how I could meet Pablo Picasso, everyone who knew him had one answer, “Go to the beach”’. The beach they were referring to was within walking distance of Picasso’s home on the Riviera, France. On the way to the Riviera, Mili stopped to pay a visit to Picasso’s nephew, Javier Vilato, who was also a painter. It was here that Mili conceived of his idea for the drawings with light, after hearing Vilato remark ‘My uncle says, “If you want to draw, you must shut your eyes and sing”. I deliberated: why not have him draw in the dark, but with a light as a pencil?’ Mili does not mention what Vilato’s reply was to this idea, but continued his remembrances about when he finally arrived at his destination close to Picasso’s home and studio: ‘I settled near the beach where Picasso swam daily. I observed him from a distance for a full morning until I got his routine. The next day when he was about to leave the beach, I stepped in front of him. “Excuse me, I’m a photographer and I would like to do your portrait”. “Oh? Go ahead”. Picasso replied, making a face. “No, serious, Serious” I replied. At that point I confronted him with a photograph taken in darkness, but showing a skater’s leap traced with lights attached to the points of the skates. Before I could utter a word, Picasso reacted instantly, intrigued, sparkling with excitement, he started drawing through the air, one shape after another, with his bare finger’. (Mili,G,1980,p110,Photographs & Reflections) (Mili,G,1970, p13,16,Picasso’sThird Dimension)

When they both arrived at Picasso’s studio, Mili was given just 15 minutes to try out one experiment with the relatively new and unusual drawing medium. Using two cameras mounted on very stable tripods, Mili placed them in the studio, which was then darkened, one camera for the front, and the other one for the side, so as to capture the entire action. Picasso stood in front of both cameras and began his very first drawing, which was of a centaur in the air created with a small electric light. It took just seconds to complete. Mili kept both lens shutters open for the entire duration of the drawing, and just as Picasso finished the drawing, Mili fired his flash, capturing both drawing and artist on the same negative on both cameras. Picasso appears in the photographs to be thoroughly taken with the process. On seeing the finished results, he agreed with Mili to do four more light drawing sessions together. Mili was event)ually able to take a total of 30 photographs of Picasso drawing more centaurs,  and also bulls, Greek profiles, and his signature.The series of photographs has become known as ‘Picasso’s Light Drawings’.

I first came across the photograph of Picasso drawing the centaur in the mid-sixties, while I was an art student in London. Mili’s spellbinding photograph was an epiphany for me; one of those rare revelations in life that opens a door for you, and compels you to explore a new and exciting direction. My view and understanding of the photograph was to change many years later.

Drawing with Light: Beginnings.

Light has a great importance to art and creativity. The first artists required light to enable them to create and view the drawings and paintings on the walls within the caves. Some of the earliest builders in history became aware of how light could be utilized within their structures for aesthetic, spiritual and religious reasons. A good example of this would be Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland. At Winter Solstice the inner chamber and the passage way leading up to it are lit up by the morning sunrise. Newgrange was constructed around 3,200 BC and outdates both the Egyptian Pyramids and Stonehenge in England, which would also be another example of an early structure utilizing natural light for possible ceremonial reasons. Stonehenge was built from around 2,600 to 2,000 BC and has a similar occurrence to the one at Newgrange when at Summer Solstice the rising sun lines up with the Heel Stone at Stonehenge. This year there were more than 20,000 people ay Stonehenge to witness this event. Alas! It was cloudy. Sunlight, when it does deicide to shine, can play an intrinsic part in creativity, in both drawing, painting, sculpture and architecture, revealing the form, and becoming something inspirational. It was certainly so for the Impressionists, and for countless other artists.

The real story of drawing with light begins with the advent of photography in the 1800s. The word photography comes from two ancient Greek words, ‘phos’ meaning light and ‘graphis’ meaning stylus. Combined they mean ‘drawing with light ‘.Thomas Edison’s ‘Carbon Filament Lamp’ in 1879 gave photographers, film makers, and theatre companies a more convenient, affordable and controllable light source compared to the earlier versions of electric lights.

In 1889, while making studies of human movement, Etienne-Jules Marey and George Demeny in France made, what is considered by many, to be the first drawing with light, by attaching several lights to their photographic assistant, whose movements across the studio were tracked by a still camera using a long exposure.

Frank Gilbreth and his wife, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, developed these same techniques further in 1914 to assist American manufacturers in increasing production by tracking workers’ movements, and to try and improve on their efficiency. I would argue with the premise that this should be called drawing. These photographs were really the beginnings of the visual surveillance systems that we now have installed around our cities, roadways, and that sometimes track us from the air. The assistants and workers who appeared in these early photographs by Marey, Demeny, and the Gilbreth’s were not consciously trying to create a drawing, no more than a firefly would if you tracked it’s light and flight! A better term for this method of photography would be light trailing.


Light Drawing / 1935 / Man Ray

It is not until we see the work of Man Ray and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy in the mid 1930s do we see the real beginnings of artistic creation with using light to draw and paint with. 


Photo Experiment with Light / 1940s  / Laslo Moholy-Nagy

Lazlo Moholy-Nagy conducted a lot of photographic experiments including ‘photograms’ and ‘lumino kinectic’ images from around 1922 into the 1940s. The above drawing was one them, created in the 1940s. Although Man Ray and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy made  the first move into using light as a flexible  art medium. It was Barbara Morgan in 1940  who I consider made the  real break through.

Pure Energy and Neurotic Man / 1940 / Barbara Morgan

It was while doing the research into drawing and painting with light for my masters degree in digital art during 2012 that I first discovered Barbara Morgan’s drawings with light, including the image above, ‘Pure Energy and Neurotic Man’, which was created using very similar techniques to Mili for his photographs of Picasso. I was familiar with Morgan’s photographs of dancers, but I was not aware of her drawings with light, so I decided to re-examine Mili’s photograph again while comparing and researching Morgan’s, and on doing so discovered that Mili had taken his photograph 9 years after Morgan took hers. This led me on to discover more about Barbara Morgan.

Pure Energy and Neurotic Man

‘Having made many rhythmic light drawings, which seemed lyrical and idealistic in contrast to so much of the ego-power struggle in our world, I planned this light drawing with upper right empty space in which to receive the second negative image of the ‘grabby’ hand.’

(Morgan,B,1980 p.4, Montage)

Morgan’s description of her photo is interesting, with her mention of the power struggle in the world, which fits the world we live in today, but I see the hand as not grabby. It looks more like hand of someone who has just performed a magical mystical trick.

Barbara Morgan’s beginnings

Morgan who was born in 1900, grew up on a peach farm in Southern California, knowing from the age of 4 that she wanted to be an artist. At the age of about 5 or 6, she was told something by her father that would influence her and have a strong bearing on her art for the rest of her life,

‘Everything is made of dancing atoms, and the whole world and everything in it is whirling and dancing, even if it looks still’,

.(Morgan B,1980,p5,6, Photomontage)

She studied at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) from 1919 to 1923. Her art training was based on ‘Arthur Wesley Dow’s Principles of Art’. These principles were part of the foundations for Morgan’s career and life. Abstract design was considered fundamental to all art structure, styles and media, and was taught along side realistic drawing and painting right for the whole of the the four years. One other key artistic idea and component that Morgan used throughout her work was ‘rhythmic vitality’, a concept that she discovered while studying the ‘The Six Canons of Chinese Painting’ which was written by Hsieh Ho in the 5th Century A.D. and is the basis of the traditions of Chinese brush painting. The six canons are:

!. ‘Circulation of the Ch’I’. (Breath, Spirit, Vital Force of Heaven)’.

2. ‘Brush Stroke Creates structure Combination of stronger and lighter brushstrokes, which you can see in Morgan’s ‘Samadhi’ on the front page’.

3. ‘According to the Object, Draw its Form’.

4. ‘According to the Nature of the Object, Apply Colour’.

5. ‘Organize Compositions with the Elemenrs in Their Proper Place’.

6. ‘In Copying, seek to pass on the essence of the master’s brush & methods’.

When you examine Morgan’s drawings with light, you can see the strong influence of Chinese and Zen calligraphy’.

Barbara Morgan’s ‘Drawing With Light’

Morgan was a friend of Laslo Moholy Nagy, who was one of the first artists to experiment with artificial light as a art form, and like him experimented with light too, using multiple exposures, and montage, and later becoming a leading exponent of it. Morgan is best known for her iconic black and white image of Martha Graham from the ballet ‘Letter to the World’, and it is without doubt her most famous photograph, and maybe the most published photograph of Martha Graham, or of any American dancer, but her drawings made with light, which she was creating at the very same time as the dance series, have been mostly overlooked, including just recently in the unique and lavish publication of ‘Light Show’, which accompanied the Hayward Gallery’s show in London by the same name. The show ran from the 30th of January to the 28th of April this year (2013), and featured 22 contemporary artists who use sculptural light as their medium of choice. Books on the subject of light as a creative artistic medium are rare, so this publication is a very valuable contribution and addition to this literary genre, but it comes as a big surprise to find that not only is Barbara Morgan not mentioned, but also Picasso and Mili are absent from this book, with Man Ray getting the very slightest mention, whereas the impressionists and the work of J. M. W. Turner who inspired them is discussed and shown. Turners incredible paintings of light border on the mystical and sublime, but they were created with paint, not light. It could be argued that the Hayward show was about artists using ‘sculptural light’ to create their art, which should leave out Turner and the impressionists, but Morgan’s, Picasso’s, and Man Ray’s drawings with light were created in a three dimensionally space. The omission from the book prompted me to take a further look at all three artists work, and after spending some considerable time studying and comparing Morgan’s, Picasso’s, and Man Ray’s drawings made with artificial light. I became aware and came to the conclusion that Morgan had discovered something that Picasso and Man Ray’s work did not display, or maybe they were aware of, but chose not to utilize it in their own work. Morgan’s drawings with light appear to have more control, sensitivity and dynamics, with the width and weight of the line changing throughout the artwork.  In order for her to have achieved this, she would have had to create her drawings three dimensionally, so as to increase, or decrease the intensity of the gestural luminous lines. By moving to and from the the fixed camera position, and not standing in the same spot throughout the whole photo recording process like Picasso and Man Ray did,  Morgan would have moved around the studio, as if dancing with the light. This was a discovery I had made with my own drawings with light, sometime before I discovered Morgans. When you consider that Morgan had already been working for five years with some of the major dancers of the American modern dance movement, such as Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Jose Limon, and Pearl Primus, it would make perfect sense that her work would reflect some influences from her close connections to the movement of dance when she would be capturing the dancers gestural and flowing movements with her camera.

‘Whether my work is large or small, abstract or realistic, the one thing that must be present is rhythmic vitality. Sometimes I find it logical to keep the realistic or external form of things and other times I find it meaningful to eliminate certain details while preserving others. In photomontage I go clear over into fantasy and in my light drawings into total abstraction. It doesn’t matter if is dance or montage or people or nature. There always has to be the presence of energy’.

(Morgan, B,1998 p13Prints, Drawings, Watercolours & Photographs)

In Morgan’s letter to Beaumont Newhall, who was an important person in the photographic community, and was the author of ‘The History of Photography’, she was hoping that he would help her by writing and publishing a piece that would give her the rightful credit  for her contribution to the advancement of photography and art. I tend to agree with Morgan’s description of Mili and Picasso’s joint photo session…

“Just for the record, I want this foregoing material to be known, because it was first a labor of love doing it, but I think it was a genuine contribution at its period. I have several quite good compositions that can be used with text. I wondered if you would care to do an article on it. I think of you first, partly because I think you are the best, but also because you showed that Light Design before the Picasso things of Mili. If you don’t want to I will do it myself, but I don’t want to sound either boastful or mad, but just straight historical fact. There is another aspect too. I drew and painted before photographing, and designed, so it really was an incorporation of media. While with Picasso, Mili was just steering him along in a superficial fling, as a stunt. Actually I had almost an almost religious sense of the communion with the cosmic force of light’.


If Picasso had been a woman, I very much doubt that there would have been the same kind of recognition for his drawings of light that he received. Barbara Morgan was mostly excepted by her peers, including a number of notable friends, Ansel Adams, Beaumont Newhall, Minor White, Joseph Cambell and Buckminster Fuller, but being a woman, and being in an area of the art world mostly dominated by men must have been difficult at times. We should also remember that both Morgan and Mili worked in the pre-digital time, and the analog photographic process was very time consuming and more difficult, especially for Morgan’s and Mili’s who were using advanced photo techniques, plus polaroid cameras were not available until 1948, so Morgan was not able to take advantage of being able to make instant tests to check exposures and lighting balance for her series of drawings with light, but by the time Mili took his photos of Picasso, it was available. To some extent, Morgan and Mili have shared very similar situations, that of partnering and photographing famous artists, and in terms of fame, being outshone by them and their super star charisma. Even today, many people assume that Picasso created the photographs of himself drawing with light, But charisma and fashion soon fade, and great art and artists stand the test of time.

Morgan describes creating images, and how she was inspired to do them.

‘As I read these photographs which I had illuminated for specific kinesthetic meanings, as well as for their function in a book, I began to feel the pervasive, vibratory character of light energy as a partner of the physical and spiritual energy of dance and as the prime-mover of the photographic process. Suddenly I decided to pay my respects to Light, and create a rhythmical light design for the book tailpiece. As early as 1940 ‘ I started much flashlight swinging in my darkened studio, in front of an open shuttered camera, to build up images in time on a single negative. Technically, my idea was sparked by having seen scientific work-efficiency movement studies photographed. Afterward I also incorporated other negative elements in photomontage’.

(Morgan B,1964, p.22, Aperture)

In conclusion, although I still consider Picasso’s drawings with light to be an important contribution, with the joint forces of  Mili and Life Magazine, bringing a new and exciting kind of art medium to the attention of the public, it was really Morgan’s series of drawings 9 years prior that took light drawing into three dimensions to become the pivotal point where drawing, sculpture, photography, and maybe dancing came together.


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