How people with sensory impairments experienced the magic of painting with light

A woman, moving a wand of blue and purple light above her head, leaving trails of light

I was recently asked to run a ‘light painting’ session for people who are deafblind or have complex communication needs. As an artist and photographer, I found it interesting to think about how I would adapt the session. But what is light painting?

Light painting works by moving any light source in front of a camera in a dark space. The movement of light is captured by the camera and creates images showing the trails of light. One of the joys of light painting sessions is how inclusive and accessible they are. With a little support, people can start making beautiful light paintings within minutes. I added sensory elements to my workshops and reviewed how this could work best. Most importantly, I assessed whether the participants would benefit from the sessions.

The sessions resulted not only in some fantastic work being produced, but also some incredible moments. Standout moments included a number of participants, who were thought to have no sight, using the brighter torches to clearly see and register light and even colour perception. I also observed behavioural changes, which saw personalities calming and rare moments of collaboration taking place.

A girl with orange lights in a strip, closer to her face

From the outset I wanted to ensure that the whole process was accessible and relevant – whether participants had sight or not, they needed to be able to equally stimulated by the process. It was also important to ensure that support staff were engaged and included as they are so vitally linked to the experience.

My sessions typically follow a proven format where I introduce the medium, show examples of my work and then move on to using a range of lights to make images. For Sense, it was clear that while the format was still relevant, the emphasis would need to change a little to make it more inclusive.

A woman seated beside a computer, which is showing images of purple light trails

Very often, lights and other objects are made from smooth plastics, which offer a blind person no real stimulation. In order to allow participants to experience the lights and colours, I developed a collection of lights that had specific sensory appeal, including extra bright – for light perception – alongside features such as texture, flexibility and sound for those participants who are completely blind. In addition, I created sensory boards that were textural representations of my work.

All of these items offered different levels of sensory stimulation, but also doubled as tools to make light paintings. If participants weren’t able to engage by waving the lights in front of the camera, we could capture their movements on their terms.

A young man in a wheelchair, smiling and moving a white stick with green and red lights on it, in the air

The response was overwhelmingly positive, with both support workers and participants engaging fully, with feedback and behaviour leading directly to developing new tools and activities to enhance the overall experience.

We have certainly tapped into something special here and I truly believe there is more we can do with this format to deliver stronger experiences. There is potential for developing and re-imagining relevant and stimulating sensory items and fantastic opportunities for making more creative activities with light accessible and inclusive for people with sensory impairments and complex needs.

The future is bright!

Find out more about Pete’s artistic practice and work as a light painting artist.

An exhibition of these works can be viewed at TouchBase Pears, Birmingham through December 2017.

Read about Sense Arts activities, workshops and events specially tailored towards individuals with sensory impairments. 

Can sound be made visible? Exploration via sensory marble runs

Author: Peter Medlicott

Peter is a light painting artist, working with on Sense Arts projects.

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