JanLeonardo rarely leaves the house before sunset. His neighbors often joke that he’s a vampire. The real reason however is his addiction: to darkness – and the images it enables him to create. We discover the mysterious world of light painting from the man who is pioneering the art form.
Our interview starts at 3 pm. JanLeonardo continually excuses himself for yawning as he sips his coffee. He has just woken up after getting home from work at the crack of dawn. This is not unusual. He has worked as a light painter for over 10 years. Every night he heads out with his camera, a varying selection of light sources and most importantly, an image in his mind: an image that he can picture perfectly when he closes his eyes; an image that he needs darkness to create.
Jan Leonardo Wöllert was born in Cuxhaven, Germany, in 1970. Today he is one of the most well-known light painters in the world. With clients ranging from the fashion label Diesel to the band Coldplay, it is clear that people like what he sees. We ask him about his work and discover what it is that inspires him to switch his lights on as most people switch theirs off for the night.
Light painting uses long exposure photography (when the shutter of a camera stays open) and portable light sources to create images or “paintings,” either in a studio or outside in natural darkness. The images are created in real time and captured in one single photographic frame. JanLeonardo describes his work as “like being a blind painter who can’t see his canvas.” Once everything is in place, all he can do is press ‘shoot’ and wait for minutes, sometimes hours, before an image appears on his screen.
Light painting takes many diverse forms. In its most basic construction, it involves a form of light graffiti – words or images drawn with a moving light source pointed towards the camera lens. Another common form is landscape light painting. These are images which illuminate a particular part of a scene such as a tree, an abandoned building or a lake by using a flashlight. The resultant image is often somewhat spooky, with items emerging from the darkness, sometimes in unusual colors.
Those who are familiar with the work of JanLeonardo will also be familiar with his Light Art Performance Photography (LAPP). Light Art Performance Photography captures routines carried out by artists who are holding or connected to light sources. These performances are normally choreographed and rehearsed prior to the exposure being taken, and involve a great deal of preparation. The final result is normally a landscape light painting featuring elements such as light balls, illuminated figures, UFOs and sometimes firework-based images.
A self-taught photographer and a self-taught light painter, JanLeonardo says he learnt his trade solely by “trial and error.” Today, when providing workshops, he encourages newcomers to take exactly the same experimental approach. He believes that good light painters are driven by curiosity. “It’s about trying again and again until you create the image you want, or finally working out how another artist created a painting that on first glance wasn’t clear,” he explains. In his opinion, passing on such a curiosity to others is far more important than passing on knowledge of specific techniques. “It’s about developing a feeling for what you are doing and understanding the complexity of the work involved.”
To create a light painting you need a camera, a stable tripod, a remote control to trigger exposures, and of course, light sources. These are normally LEDs. JanLeonardo makes it clear that when it comes to selecting light sources, “there are no limits!” You can use anything you find such as old torches lying around your home, children’s toys or gadgets you find in a euro shop. Despite having developed a number of sought-after light painting tools, he strongly believes that “going back to the roots,” and using personal items is a great starting point for inspiration and provides an individual touch.
According to JanLeonardo, no equipment is more important than a vivid imagination. You do not only need to come up with an idea, you must also stick with it as much as possible. Most of his ideas come to him when in the bath. Asking if he ever becomes frustrated or has given up on an image, he says “of course.” He admits he is a perfectionist. As our interview takes place in high summer, he explains it is a time of increased pressure with effective working hours (darkness) significantly reduced. The benefit however is that he doesn’t freeze in the middle of the night. Working with and against the elements every day, it is clear that JanLeonardo lives in a parallel universe to those with a 9 – 5 job; his neighbors however have nothing to worry about!