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How do today’s artists play with light?

Snap a selfie, a landscape, or a photo of your pet. Did you use light to enhance the image—even if you weren’t aware you were doing so? Across genres and mediums, light is as important in art today as it was hundreds of years ago. The contemporary artists featured on these pages explore light to creatively illuminate their ideas.

Take a selfie. Did you use light to help you capture the photo? Light is as important today as it was years ago. The contemporary artists whose work is on these pages play with light to express their ideas.

Keegan Monaghan (b. 1986). The Dream, 2016-2017. Oil on canvas, 61 1/4x67 1/8in. (155x170cm). Image courtesy of James Fuentes.

How does Monaghan use light as a guide in his surreal work?

Dreaming in Color

Keegan Monaghan (KEE-gen MON-uh-han) is known for his large-scale oil paintings. His 2016-2017 The Dream, above, is almost 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall. In this surreal painting, the Brooklyn-based artist layers colorful images from a dream on top of a darkened bedroom. 

Monaghan paints a cropped figure sleeping in the foreground. He adds highlights in a grid pattern to show light shining through a window outside the picture plane. The artist paints a rug, an alarm clock, and other objects found in a typical home.

In the cloud-like shape above the bed, Monaghan creates a semi-translucent dreamscape. He layers mountains, a meteor, and a cropped figure on top of the outlined objects in the room. Monaghan uses light, color, and images to capture the layered nature of an unconscious mind.

Keegan Monaghan (KEE-gen MON-uh-han) is an artist in Brooklyn, New York. His 2016-2017 The Dream, above, is almost 6 feet wide and 6 feet tall. The work is surreal, or dream-like. Monaghan layers images from a dream over a bedroom scene. 

The artist paints someone sleeping in the foreground. He crops the figure so that the viewer only sees the back of a head. He adds highlights and shadows in a grid pattern. This shows light through a window outside the picture plane. Monaghan adds a rug, a clock, and more objects usually seen in a home.

The cloud-like shape above the bed is the dreamscape. Monaghan layers mountains, a meteor, and another cropped figure in the dream. He works with light, color, and images to capture the act of dreaming.

Susan Grossman (b. 1959). The Bicyclist, 2015. Charcoal and pastel on paper, 60x70in. (152x179cm). Courtesy of Susan Grossman.

How does Grossman render artificial light in her cityscape?

City Lights

New York City-based artist Susan Grossman finds her inspiration on walks through the city’s neighborhoods. In her 2015 The Bicyclist, she uses charcoal and pastel crayons to depict an energetic street scene at night.  

One of the most significant aspects of a cityscape at night is the presence of artificial light. Grossman applies white pastel to portray streetlights and headlights throughout the monochromatic scene. She uses charcoal to render the pedestrians and their shadows on the road. Tiny specks of light appear in the windows of dark buildings looming in the background.

Grossman often uses her hands to smear pastel across the paper, capturing delicate trails of light. But her secret tool is a paper towel. She prefers it to an artist’s cloth because it creates a texture that “isn’t so smooth.” 

Susan Grossman works in New York City. She’s inspired on walks through NYC’s neighborhoods. In her 2015 The Bicyclist, above, she draws a street scene at night. She uses charcoal and pastel crayons. 

At night, artificial light, or human-made light, lights up cities. Grossman uses white pastel to show streetlights and headlights. She uses charcoal to draw people and their shadows on the road. Tiny specks of light shine in the buildings’ windows.

Many artists use a cloth to pull pastel across canvas. But Grossman often uses her hands or a paper towel to smear pastel on the canvas. This helps her capture trails of light.

Chatchai Puipia (b. 1964). A Lost Siamese, 2002. Oil on linen, 45x57in. (114x145cm). Art Stage Singapore 2013. Courtesy Chatchai Puipia Image courtesy of 100 Tonson Gallery.

How does Puipia experiment with highlights and shadows in his self-portrait?

Portrait Performance

Chatchai Puipia (CHAH-cheye pyoo-ee-PEE-uh) lives and works in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. The artist is interested in the performative ways people present themselves to the world. For his 2002 A Lost Siamese, above, Puipia uses light to craft an expressive self-portrait.

Puipia portrays himself making an exaggerated facial-expression. His eyes pop wide open, and he presses his mouth into a close-lipped smile. The artist uses highlights and shadows to emphasize the detailed contours in his facial expression.

With both warm and cool colors, Puipia paints the creases around his mouth, eyes, and cheeks. He adds rows of lines across his forehead above raised eyebrows. Notice the bright white reflection on the tip of his nose. The artist gives his skin the appearance of clay, as if he is sculpting his skin, rather than painting it. 

Puipia sees his art as an exploration of how people perform. “Communicating and participating in today’s world can lead to despair,” Puipia says. “Often, the only thing I can do in response is smile.” 

Chatchai Puipia (CHAH-cheye pyoo-ee-PEE-uh) lives in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. He’s interested in how people present themselves to the world. He paints himself in his 2002 A Lost Siamese, above. Puipia works with light to make an expressive self-portrait.

The artist paints an exaggerated facial expression. His eyes pop open. He presses his mouth into a smile. Puipia uses warm and cool colors to add highlights and shadows. These draw attention to the details. He paints creases around his mouth, eyes, and cheeks. He adds lines above his raised eyebrows. 

“Communicating and participating in today’s world can lead to despair,” Puipia says. “Often, the only thing I can do in response is smile.”

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