Light and motion

We perceive the world through five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Visual art, as its name implies, communicates with us through sight. Pet owners will attest that cats and dogs don’t share this visual bias, preferring instead to savour the touch, smell and taste of fine art. But let’s not dwell on the time that your dog mistook your meticulously detailed Saturn V rocket model for a bone, and buried it in the back yard.

To optimize the impact of visual art, we can leverage some basic science about how vision works. For example, we know that the eye is attracted to motion. If you’re looking out the window of a tall building, the first things you notice are pedestrians and cars moving below, and maybe some birds gliding by. If you’re lucky enough to have an ocean-side view, your eye will be drawn to the endless lapping of waves upon the shore.

The eye is also attracted to light. Walking on the street at night, we immediately notice streetlights, car lights, and if you’re in the country, the stars and moon.

Although light and motion are fairly easy to incorporate into many forms of art, the vast majority of painters, sculptors and diorama artists don’t take advantage of these tools. There may be an overdose of self-consciousness at work here, as many artists are fearful of being ridiculed for stepping beyond the bounds of the normal or typical. Modern art has broken many boundaries, but not all. I find it surprising that more visual artists don’t incorporate light and motion in their works. In the past, many purists would have argued that a “real” work of art should not shine, glimmer, spin or oscillate, but most of them passed away sometime in the 19th century.

At a recent art show, I saw an innovative wall sculpture which depicted a swimmer splashing around in a small pool. The swimmer was an electronic projection but the walls were actual three-dimensional pieces forming the perimeter of the sculpture. This created the effect that the swimmer was as real as the walls surrounding her—a brilliant way of exploiting the way in which the brain processes visual information.

Adding light and motion to a diorama is relatively easy to do, and is guaranteed to heighten its impact. LED lights are available in numerous shapes, colours and voltages, and can be wired to shine constantly or flash. Their long life span makes them ideally suited to diorama applications. LEDs can be incorporated in and around vehicles and buildings to create a range of different effects.

A diorama with a sufficient quantity of lights will become self-illuminating, so putting it in a dark room with the lights turned off will give you a night scene which can be especially dramatic. Turning the room lights back on will give you a daytime scene, so you get two distinct looks from one diorama.

Motion can be real or faked. Do you want to show your Spitfire Mk IX taxiing down the runway? Substitute a plexiglass disc for the propeller supplied with the kit. Through careful sanding and painting, you can create the effect of a spinning prop. Or you can go a step further and actually motorize the propeller.

When it comes to taking the next step with your dioramas, remember that light and motion are your friends. Not many diorama artists take advantage of these simple tools. If you do, you’ll be one step ahead of the game.

-Ivar