A Light in the Darkness: Growing a Light Painting Scene Where There Isn’t One
I started light painting in 2013. I dabbled a bit but was in a photography lull and didn’t push it that hard. In early 2014 I got inspired again and decided to start shooting again after barely shooting anything at all for five years. I decided at that point that light painting was going to be where I took my art and that I wanted to be part of a local scene.
Metro Denver has over 3 million people. Colorado has over 5.5 million people. Four years ago when I decided to really dive into light painting I tried to find anyone at all who was serious about the art form. There were people who dabbled, it seemed like everybody and their mother had tried it in passing, but nobody who did anything more than that, and nobody who was actively doing it.
Searching Google on “Denver light painting” yielded a couple of results but mostly it was a couple images in portfolios of a brief camera affair with steel wool, plus a couple more basic shots. I found novelty shots and nothing more. I found the LPWA page for local representatives and got excited; there were two listed for Denver!! It turns out that one of them hadn’t light painted in several years and the other had moved a thousand miles away. Five million people and there was nobody who cared about light painting within 500 miles. I was alone.
Who was out there?
I had the internet. Patrick Rochon was the first artist I found. His style lined up with the kind of ideas I had and I was inspired. But who was anywhere near me? I found TCB (Dana Maltby) and Brian Matthew Hart in Minneapolis. Chris Look was in Arkansas. Eric Pare and Patrick were in Montreal. Jason Page was in Florida. England had a posse. Spain had a scene. Germany was rocking it. As far as I could tell, the middle of the USA had, well, me.
When I say ‘me’ I really mean ‘me and mountains and fields and lots of empty open space and people who aren’t already into light painting’. I looked on a map and plotted out where the people I wanted to meet were. It wasn’t a pretty sight. There may have been more light painters inside this circle but I couldn’t find them.
I’m in the middle of the American desert. My situation is more extreme that most of you reading this so for comparison here’s the same circle on Europe:
I was bored with the photography I used to shoot. I knew I needed to create again, and I wanted to shoot with human subjects like I used to, but where to start?
When Nobody Near You Is Doing Your Thing…
Tip #1: Just start doing it
I wanted to learn and I turned to the web. I bought Patrick’s video series. I ordered some tools. I did a couple sample shots, then I grabbed a friend of mine who had a blacked out studio (Hi Dirty D!), his wife modeled for us and we experimented. He and his wife were about to have a baby, and they ended up moving to California, but it was enough to get started.
Here’s the thing…. once you have a cool shot or two you can talk people into shooting with you. The same was true when I started my model photography back in 2000. First, you have to lean on a friend and get them to do a shoot with the photographer who doesn’t have a portfolio. Then, if you do a good job and have a unique style, you can’t keep up with the people who want to create with you (at least if they don’t have to pay for your time!).
The next week I talked another one of my friends into shooting with me and we created this shot:
After this image it was easy to find models. Dirty D and I shot again, then I organized a small gathering with friends. We shot outside, got some fun stuff, and none of them continued to light paint after that night.
Start Doing What You Love
I didn’t know what else to do so I started a Facebook group called “Denver Light Painting” and I invited some friends. A little while I later I had my first group shoot. I think there were seven of us that night; me, four people I knew and two I didn’t. One of the new friends was actually someone who had previous light painting experience. David Wilhelm had just moved to Denver from Texas and it was exciting to talk with someone who knew more about light painting than I did. We shot that night, but that was the only time we shot; he and his wife had a baby and, sadly, we’ve barely crossed paths since. The other new friend and I had instant chemistry, photo and otherwise, and we ended up dating for six months.
That time was a whirlwind. It’s an amazing feeling when you create art with someone you’re close to. It doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship, just someone who has ideas, suggestions, encouragement, excitement. They want to team up and create amazing art and that fire is contagious.
Tip #2: Find another person who this art speaks to. Just get fired up!
I still hadn’t found anyone else to shoot with but the fire was burning and I had someone with whom to collaborate on ideas. The very next group shoot for Denver Light Painting featured some friends who wanted to shoot or model, and then the late arrival of another local photographer, Aaron, who had some light painting experience. I was so excited to see a new technique that night! Alas, he works nights and in the three years since I have only seen and shot with him one more time. So now I’ve found two LPWA reps who were both no longer here. I found two more people who had some LP experience and for logistical reasons those connections haven’t really been able to move forward. Two sides of the same coin, I found that there actually was interest and that I could probably make it grow, but it wasn’t coming together. I taught a class at a local maker space. Three times as many people RSVPed as showed up, so that was a little hard, but the people who showed up had a great time.
The rest of the year it was mostly just me shooting. I met David Quakenbush and while we’ve kept in touch on various fronts we haven’t really shot much together. 2014 ended, 2015 started. I had a lot of models but it was another year before I shot with another photographer again (Aaron), and a few months after that I bumped into David Wilhelm again on an art walk. I shot at an event that night, and I shot a few more events after that. During DEF CON in Vegas I gave a talk on light painting at Skytalks. Waiting on my flight home I spoke to a guy and it turns out his wife and daughters had attended my class the previous year, and that his daughters were light painting maniacs for a month or two after that. People started to learn that light painting even existed, and I was building up a pretty solid portfolio, but there still was no local photographer scene.
If You Build It…
Back in 2014 on I had invited a friend (Ryan) to shoot with me; that shoot lasted about an hour. A year and a half later he joined me again for an evening of shooting. A few weeks after that I shot with a model and showed her photographer-husband how to light paint. After that there I did a lot more shooting, but there were no new photographers. At this point I’ve got 500 decent-to-good shots in my portfolio, I’m feeling support from my friends and models, everyone wants to be IN the shots but I’m still shooting alone. 2015 ended.
Tip #3: Stick with it
When 2016 started I was on fire. I was doing two to four shoots a week in January and February. Adriana, one of my early light painting models, an amazing fine artist, had started photography and wanted to learn. I shot another friend and her boyfriend was excited to learn, and another photographer (Robie) from an hour away showed up to shoot with us. Ryan shot with me again. I decided I wanted to learn infrared photography to add a new element to my work and I spent an evening with Geoff Decker where we gave each other an introduction to each other’s skills. Still, there was nothing regular. I felt alone, I felt like I was failing at building a scene. The river wasn’t yet roaring but I took consolation in the fact that I finally had a trickle.
In late May of 2016, I hosted Eric Pare and Kim Henry for three days. This was the first time I had actually gotten to spend some significant time with another serious light painter. Eric’s one-second style was so different from my studio work where each shot could last one to ten minutes, but that was wonderful! I was learning new things and I felt more validated in my own creations. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to share work with photographer friends from around the world online but feeling their energy in person is so much more. I showed Eric some things he hadn’t seen before and he showed me a new way of light painting. For once I was no longer only the teacher and it felt so good! Too soon, they left for the next stage of their adventures. It was great to have them here but sad to see them leave, knowing that I still didn’t have a community here.
Tip #4: Branch out. People with other related interests might find interest in light painting too
I stumbled into body painting, trading light painting knowledge for an airbrushing lesson. This added another light painter to Denver and added a new skill to my own toolbox. The next Denver Light Painting meetup was out of control! Actually, it was just me and one other photographer (Vanessa) on her first light painting outing, and a very artistic friend I invited to model that night (Nancy). Call it serendipity, Nancy was actually also one of the four friends at the first Denver jam back in 2014! The next few months saw some body paint, some lightning, some prisms, some fireworks, some rooftops, some meteors. Nancy helped me shoot one of the two pieces that made the show in Oviedo. Then I hit a creative wall.
Johnny Griffin (of Spirojib fame) came to Colorado in September and I had burned out. I had been trying to start a scene for over three years and it wasn’t going anywhere. People liked the pictures but they didn’t understand or appreciate the process. I didn’t actually feel like shooting but for his visit I pulled together a Denver group shoot and we had a pretty good turnout. It turns out that I was the first serious light painter that HE had ever met in person that he hadn’t taught. Johnny liked some of my tools, specifically a lens-mounted kaleidoscope I’d built, and I got to see him create so much magic in the months after that. I, on the other hand, made only one more light painting image for the rest of the year. I skipped Photokina/Oviedo (one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made) because although I wanted to attend I didn’t want to be there when I didn’t even want to shoot. 2016 ended.
…They Will Come
Tip #5: Stick with it, then stick with it some more.
I don’t know if it was the start of the new year or something else but when 2017 started I was inspired again. LPWA had announced a Rome meetup, Nancy and I were dating, and through it all I was still trying to start a scene in Denver. Maybe I was fueled by the arrival of an exciting prism tool I had purchased a year prior. Whatever it was, the first jam of 2017 had the best energy we’d seen in a long time. Geoff became a regular, Robie attended, Vanessa came, a couple more friends Bert and Lex started coming and, out of nowhere, I’ve got Paul Burns showing up and creating new pieces like a man channeling an art demon. Paul lives an hour away and has been messing around with light painting for a few years yet somehow we hadn’t connected. Todd Blaisdell came down from Alaska to visit friends and he dropped in for a couple hours during the second jam of the year. Almost four years in and that night was only the third time I got to hang with an experienced light painter. Each time that happened, however, I felt more and more validated in what I was doing. Then Nancy and I went to Italy for LPWA Rome 2017.
The Power of a Group or Scene
Tip #6: Understand group dynamics and what excites people
Two weeks after hanging with Todd, we were in Italy having dinner with and shooting with Maria Saggese. A week after that we walked up to a bridge in Rome and in that moment I met more experienced light painters than over the rest of my light painting time combined. I didn’t know anyone but felt like I belonged. It seemed like most of the group knew each other, and in that way I felt like a bit of an outsider, but that was okay. I wasn’t the only one in that situation, and the group was very welcoming. We saw new moves, traded knowledge, and got to spend quality time with people sharing a common passion and ideas. It’s easy to have ideas and not act on them. It’s so much better to have people around you, excited, pushing you to try new things.
Tip #7: Did I mention that you should stick with it?
Understand that group shoots are more about collaborating on pieces and trading skills than they are about a specific individual’s work. Leave the ego at the door and remember that everybody starts somewhere, just like you did, and they can improve. The more people you have around you, the more ideas you’re going to get. They are going to force you to try things that you think aren’t going to work and to your surprise sometimes they actually WILL work and you’ll have a new technique.
The Denver area now has a growing light painting scene. It’s not as strong as Spain or the UK or Germany, and most of the people moving it forward are just getting started themselves. It’s going to take work to keep it going but the ball is rolling and getting that started was the hardest part. Nancy is co-creating with me and providing inspiration. New photographers are getting introduced to light painting and experienced models are saying that light painting is the most fun or most unique shoots they’ve ever done. We have some traction and I’m excited to see where it goes.
Come join us in-and-around Denver in August of 2017 for a unique event where we merge the dark skies of having nothing around us with the strongest meteor shower and light painting. And remember that when you feel alone in the darkness, and if you stick with it, you can still draw others to your light.