LpR Article | Sep 06, 2016

LEDs Reveal Paintings Hidden in Paintings

Artists are often early adopters of new technologies and new solutions and methods that bring art to a new level. For fine arts artist, light and their material are the two major elements to play with. It’s no wonder that LED lighting has become an important element for them. The artist, Clint Eccher, and Arno Grabher-Meyer from LED professional show how LED lighting is used to transform static paintings into some of the most advanced paintings in the world, in dynamic, “living” pieces that transform their appearance with LED light. Clint Eccher's work, how it is done, and the role of LED technology will be explained.

Since the very first cave paintings more than 30,000 years ago, such as Chauvet Cave in France and even older paintings recently discovered in Indonesia, paintings have been comprised of one static image and message. The new “Tiered Painting” method involves hiding a tier or painting (called “hidden tier”) inside another tier (“visible tier”) and then using LED lights to reveal the hidden tier.

And that’s just the beginning. The hidden tier can be revealed with just white LED lights. When RGB LED lights are used, however, the colors of the paintings react to the changing LED light colors, creating a feeling of movement. And then there is another stage. By adding a music controller, the lights can then change with the beats in the room, making the lights and painting sound-reactive.

LED technology exponentially increases the options a painter now has to work with. LED lights have the potential to completely alter painting and the traditional fine art world. An artist can now communicate so much more. Not only can two paintings be included in one piece, but there are also other states of those two paintings that exist by manipulating both the room lighting and LED colors.

How Tiered Paintings Work

Tiered paintings don’t require any special material. They are painted on traditional canvas with every day acrylic paints and palette knives. It’s an amazingly simple method. It requires nothing new for painters, except imagination. In the end, all they have to do is attach LED strip lighting to a back panel, which is then attached to the back of the painting. The light then shines through the canvas and paint to reveal both paintings and/or various states of them, depending on the lighting of the room.

While this sounds like a very easy task, modifying this method has been essential for the paintings to work in all lighted situations. It not only has to make the paintings work when the LEDs are turned off in a normally lit room, as well as with the LEDS on in a darkened room, but they have to work for lighting in between the two extremes (Figures 1a-e).

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.13.26.pngFigures 1a-e: Tiered Paintings work in rooms with all types of lighting levels and conditions and change their appearance depending on the LED backlighting intensity and color

While Tiered Paintings work best in a darkened room, it is possible to paint them in a way that makes them work in all lighting conditions. A new painting style enables enough light to show through the visible tier so that it lights up in a normally lit room. Some paintings are an amalgamation of the two tiers, while others simply glow. Either way, it’s a subtle, magical feeling when you see a painting that looks alive in the middle of the day.

While there is great potential for the painting method to be adopted by artists around the world, for that to happen, similar LED light boards would need to be manufactured and made to be easily assembled because many artists don’t have the technical expertise or interest to figure out to how build their own boards.

Basic LED System Configuration

Currently, strip lights with 5050 SMD LED RGB 150/300 are mounted in rows on the plywood back panel. They are connected to a standard LED driver, along with an RF, IR, and WiFi LED controller to make it easy for the patron to turn the paintings on and off - or even program the lighting sequence and timing from a smart phone.

We can assume that most artists won’t have the time, patience or money to experiment with all the different brands of products. To find the current solution, hundreds and thousands of dollars were necessary to figure out what works best in terms of lights, quantity of lights, controllers, and various LED drivers. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Due to the costs and controls effort, up until now no RGBA or RGBW lights strips were used, but there are indications that they could have advantages over the current RGB solution or allow additional subtle effects. The complexity involved with Tiered Painting, ironically, adds to the ease of creating the right color at the right time.

Controlling the Color

It is very likely that quite similar results can be achieved when adding white or amber because the color of the lights can also be controlled with the paint. Tiered Paintings are already difficult in terms of color because the artist not only has to consider the colors of the hidden tier, but also the colors of the visible tier. When adding all the various colors of the LED lights, it becomes more complex than any other painting method. The good news is that with all these options, the artist can create nearly any color they want. Therefore, Tiered Painting is one of the most technically difficult and advanced painting methods in the world. There isn’t just one static layer.

From an artistic point of view, not only do the color issues to being considered, but also the composition and message as multiple paintings and states of the paintings working together has to be taken into account. There is something exciting about working with such a challenging painting method that allows the artist to go where no one has gone before. Traditional paintings are much less exciting because with Tiered Paintings, the artist has to wait for the finished painting including the technical elements to see what else the painting has to say.

Technology Versus Artistic Sensitivity

Tiered Painting didn’t exist before LED’s because the heat emitted by earlier light sources like incandescent, was not safe for paintings. Moreover, the UV light emitted by those sources has also proven to be harmful.

Fortunately, LEDs don’t produce UV rays, which is the leading source of paint degradation. What hurt the reputation of LEDs illuminating paintings was an erroneous report in 2013 claiming that LEDs were damaging the chrome yellow in Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings [1]. It turned out that the lights they were testing weren’t LED after all and that version of yellow paint is much more lightfast than it was 100 years ago, if used at all.

Despite the emergence of LED technology, the fine art aspect of the paintings needs to be maintained and the right balance has to be found. An artist’s imagination can run wild with the possibilities of LEDs that can be programmed to create ever more advanced paintings. But true art needs to be able to stand alone as a work of art without the lights. Without the light board, holding a painting up to the sun, one can still see the magic of the hidden tier inside the visible tier. Employing more advanced methods of lighting for this work makes the artist dependent on a technology that may or may not be around 100 years from now. But the artist has the freedom to choose which way they will go.

Documenting and Presenting Tiered Paintings

While LEDs enable Tiered Paintings to exist, they make documenting them challenging. Moving and changing colors do not lend themselves to a static photo. Therefore, for an artist, discovering Tiered Painting is like getting off a ship and reaching an undiscovered land, but there’s not much point in discovering a new land if one can’t document it. Tiered Paintings can’t be adequately shown by static photos, and it’s difficult to video them. It might be necessary to hire a professional videographer.

Personal and practical experiences
Not being a technician, especially not an LED driver expert, means having to play around with LEDs and drivers. With the available LED drivers, a video camera that could have its frame rate modified to coincide with the refresh rate of the drivers necessary. Six tested video cameras did not work and then a professional videographer was found that had a camera that could modify the frame rate as needed.

Basically, what happens is that the used LED driver is refreshing the lights unsynchronized with a different frequency than the camera’s frame rate. This means some of the lights begin fading before the camera could shoot a frame, thus the video captures that darkened bar that moves up the screen. This is similar to the effect that we see when an unsynchronized video camera is used to copy a video from an old CRT monitor.

Finally it emerged that the reason behind these difficulties is that the used driver pulse-modulates the current to set brightness levels and color. A better solution for this problem might be the right choice of the driver [2]. A constant current driver should avoid or reduce this effect because the LEDs are continuously powered on an adequate level. With high quality drivers the current ripple should be negligible. However, there are some remaining issues.

Capturing the color as accurately as possible is also difficult. Not only does the video need to be edited to show the various states and transitions of lighting options of the paintings, but also the colors of the video must also be edited. Otherwise the video does not represent the true character of the painting, as it would be when seen in natural light.

Capturing the actual color of Tiered Paintings is like trying to capture the magic of live music - it is nearly impossible. While trying to get them to be as accurate as possible, there is an inherent difficulty with videoing LED lights because their glow tends to over expose the video and it’s always difficult to get those colors close to what the eye sees without degrading the rest of the video. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be truly satisfied.

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.15.32.pngFigures 2a-c: The painting “Future, Past, Present” demonstrates how LED colors and paints interact


Many of the first 18 paintings were about testing and experimenting. Every painting was painted with a specific aspect of the method to test. Following are a few examples of the work and some of the visual techniques that can be accomplished with it [3]:

“Future, Past, Present”
This painting illustrates how LED colors and paints interact. In the visible and hidden tiers, the painting is red; however, when the LED color turns to green, the reds become almost black, creating an abstract painting of its own in for the hidden tier. Note: The last image does not do a great job of capturing all the light emitted from the painting, as well as the subtle details (Figures 2a-c).

“You’re Not Alone”
A sound controller makes painting appear more dynamic and energetic. Such dynamic painting, however, works better with abstract images where the mind doesn’t lock onto a literal image (Figures 3a&b).

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.15.52.pngFigures 3a&b: Abstract paintings like “You Are Not Alone” are well-suited to being equipped with a sound controller to generate dynamic paintings

“The Tuftes”
This painting shows how LED lights can be seen through the visible tier in a well-lit room (Figures 4a-c).

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.15.58.pngFigures 4a-c: “The Tuftes” show the transformation of a mainly monochromatic appearance to a colored image in a well-lit room, and finally an intense, colorful painting under low-level light

“Cinque Terre”
A lot can be communicated between a hidden and visible tier. The visible tier of Cinque Terre shows a woman waiting at a bus stop dreaming about “Italia.” The hidden tier shows the woman with her dream man overlooking a colorful and romantic Cinque Terre (Figures 5a&b).

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.16.02.pngFigures 5a&b: “Cinque Terre” is an example of how beyond changing the color of a painting the content and message of an image can be changed

“New York, New York”
One aspect of Tiered Painting that has proven to impress nearly every time, is changing from one concept or place to a drastically different concept or place. That is the premise behind the New York, New York painting. It changes from swans swimming in a pond on a peaceful summer morning to people ice-skating on that same pond that is now Wollman Rink in New York City’s Central Park at night.

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.16.07.pngFigures 6a&b: The season in the painting “New York, New York” makes a dramatic change from summer to winter

“Five Blues”
This painting combines parts of the hidden tier into the visible tier, making the image more surreal and perplexing until the hidden tier is revealed, making the image complete.

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.16.14.pngFigures 7a&b: In “Five Blues”‑the surreal appearance of the visible tier is transformed in a more realistic scene when the hidden musicians are revealed

“The Women Will Play”
The imagery of the visible tier cannot only remain in the hidden tier, but it can also disappear into it. Moreover, the main imagery in the visible tier can also change as the hidden tier is revealed. In this painting, a conservative version of women turns into them having fun and dancing as the men in the visible tier disappear into the night sky of the hidden tier.

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.16.18.pngFigures 8a&b: The shy women in “The Women WIll Play” only come to life when the men disappear in the dark of the night

Feedback and Future

While having sold more than one hundred oil paintings over the course of a 16-year career and even more prints of these paintings in stores, no creation has received near unanimous approval.

There is nothing more fun to show than Tiered Paintings because of people’s reactions. For example, the reaction of a 70-year-old man who has been to galleries and museums all over the world when seeing a Tiered Painting was, “Holy …!”. And if people don’t cuss, they’re saying things such as, “No way!, “How did you do that?”, “Wait, what just happened?”, or “This is so amazing” - or they simply laugh in amazement.

People in the professional lighting community are starting to take notice, as well. The Light Center, a professional lighting company in Fort Collins has helped in the marketing of Tiered Painting. “Combining LED lights with fine art takes them both to an unprecedented level,” says Jennifer Guerriero, owner of The Light Center. “I have been in the lighting business for 16 years, and I have never seen anything like these paintings. It’s like turning a key and entering into a secret world you never knew existed. The LEDs bring you to a deeper level of a painting’s essence.”

Promotion of this work has just started. Experts have just recognized these artworks, and every possible avenue to get the paintings out into the world is welcome. There is no question that with the mass growth of LEDs occurring that it’s the right time.

There is certainly still potential for technical improvements with regards to using the right LEDs, the perfect drivers and controls. Maybe further cooperation with luminaire manufacturers and LED specialists could lead to an even more spectacular presentation of the artworks. But finally, the technology behind is only the tool to support a great idea coming from an artist’s unique spirit of discovery and eagerness to experiment.

Screen Shot 2016-09-06 at 16.43.21.png

[1] Commentary: Latest LED Lighting Headline – “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, Arno Grabher-Meyer, LED professional Review |
Issue 38, July/Aug 2013
[2] http://www.xicato.com/technology/dimming-technology
[3] http://www.clinteccher.com/acrylic-paintings-tiered.htm