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Experiments with Light and Depth: Lighting Studio Project #1

September 18, 2010


Sometimes achieving a very simple lighting effect can be just as challenging as executing a complex one.  It’s a problem that theatrical lighting designers, and as I’m now learning, architectural lighting designers, often run into. Often it’s the simplest effects that are the most difficult to isolate, yet the most powerful in a design.

Our first lighting studio project at Parsons focused on this dichotomy, by zooming on a specific lighting effect that we observed in the city, and then abstracting out the core effect to explore in three dimensions.

Observed lighting effect. (Research)

The effect I observed in a particular window display in Midtown East was the ability of light to reveal and conceal volume and depth. I observed that the gradient of light that plays across a surface, or two adjacent surfaces, reveals the depth of a volume in its transition from light to dark.  Also, the negative space (shadow) present between areas of light can generate the visual sensation of depth, even when there is none.

From those observations I began to examine the effect in drawings and sketches.  I started by examining how light and shadow play across geometric surfaces and solids, observing how highlight and shadow reveal a form.  It was then that I wondered: can I recreate the appearance of depth or volume with light, without either being physically present?  Or, can I collapse depth or volume, using light, when both are physically present?

One of many sketches.

I theorized that by placing light and shadow in exactly the right places, there could be a possibility to accomplish such an effect.  I decided the best way to do that would be to use backlight, similar to the effect I observed in the city.

After working out my ideas on paper and in several small-scale 3D models, I came up with a plan to build a five-sided box, illuminated from within, with a different exploration of lighting and depth on each side.

Here are my results:

The top of the box is a direct communication of the effect I observed in the city, that light has the ability to reveal depth and volume based on the gradient of light that plays across a surface.

The front of the box examines the same effect, gradient of light across a surface, but by slightly peeling back the edges of a backlit surface, allowing the light along the exposed edges to define the three-dimensionality of the surface.

The back side of the box attempts to create the visual illusion of depth where there is no physical depth.  The illuminated shapes are actually flat pieces of paper, although, backlit in this fashion, they appear to become three-dimensional, almost cylindrical shapes.  What’s also interesting about this study is that the black spaces in between the lit rectangles are actually on a separate plane, set back from the front surface of the box.  Here, though, they appear to be on the same plane thanks to the contrast in lighting.

The right side of the box investigates the effect of setting a white, backlit surface off of another white surface, which results in a great deal of visual depth.  Not only do the backlit circles appear more three-dimensional, but they stand strongly off of the background due to the reflected light that generates a halo behind them.

The left side of the box, on the other hand, examines the effect of setting a black, backlit surface off of a white background. I also chose to add another level of complexity to this study by setting the white background off of the surrounding black background.  Interestingly, as a result, the three distinct planes (levels) in this study become collapsed into a single visual plane due, again, to the contrast in lighting.

Overall, the project was essential in helping me explore the original lighting effect I observed, and I definitely learned a few things about light and depth simply by creating and observing the model.  It also helped a great deal to get feedback from others about what they saw, because they uncovered effects I couldn’t see because I had been working so closely on the project.

So the next question is: what to do with the model now that the project is finished?  All I can say is, if you ever visit my apartment, don’t be surprised if it’s hanging from the ceiling or sitting on my nightstand!



  1. Stacy #
    September 18, 2010

    Ryan, your mind works in phenomenal ways! How you able to look at that lighting effect and determine not only what you wanted to do but how to do it – well, let’s just say you are on another whole plane of creativity here! Not only that, to then be able to put it into words and create a fascinating blog post … brilliant! Well done!!

  2. Laura #
    September 20, 2010

    You’re blowing me away with everything you’ve posted, I’m continually impressed with each update I read.
    Keep on keepin’ on!!

    September 21, 2010


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