Various kinds of light

“My aim … is to create pulsating, luminous, and open surfaces that emanate a mystic light, in accordance with my deepest insight into the experience of life and nature.”

Hans Hofmann

That’s a high aspiration for a blog! and I share Hoffmann’s objective. If I don’t deliver light to anyone else, then maybe for myself.

There are two artist Hof(f)manns who interest me. The one with one f spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, born in Bavaria and at first engaged with science and mathematics, later emigrating to America and developing another side of himself, training in art and strongly influenced by the ideas of Matisse in the production of his abstract expressionist works. His paintings are pretty bright! The other, with  two fs, specialised in highly detailed and delicate studies of  nature in watercolour and gouache, and was appointed court painter to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1585, helping his employer to build his extraordinary art collection, which contains many works by Albrecht Durer.

Their works are very different, but seem to me to characterise aspects of my own nature. I trained as a scientist, yet I believe that art can convey meanings, or more precisely feelings which are over and above the facts. And this brings me to the subject of light. How many aspects are there, scientific and symbolic, to that simple little word?

In a recent programme on the BBC (source of much enlightenment to me) Professor Jim Al-Khalili managed to finally get through to my fuddled brain an inkling of an explanation of where the light in the universe might have come from. Oftentimes, I can follow such cosmic meaning only so far – I watch and watch, or read and read a book about, say, Paul Dirac, only to realise that I’ve suddenly lost the thread. I’ll try to paraphrase. Shortly after the Big Bang, in darkness swimming with the weirdly materialised particles of the first matter, the coalescence of those particles from the ‘quark-gluon plasma’ resulted in hydrogen and then helium nuclei, which then captured electrons with the release of photons. And there was light. (well, I did say it was a paraphrase. Sorry about that!)

Since that earliest of times, photons have been bouncing around the universe, to the delight of Newton and many since. Light zooms through and round, it splits and recombines, it magnifies and illuminates, catalyses many of the most significant reactions of life and not least importantly relates to matter in the famous equation. I can only understand a fraction of what it can really do. I was a dunce at physics, and a little better at chemistry and biology, but I can fully appreciate light as almost miraculous. Here, I recall a few of the wonders.

Remembering Isaac Newton:


Or more naturally:


Stained glass:

stained glass light

Or plain glass:


Sunlight and lamplight:

two lights

Dappled things:

dappled light



A fountain of light:


It’s possible that I have spent more time engaged in trying to capture images of light, and thinking about more metaphorical kinds of light, than in any other activity. I want to understand, but maybe I never will. Enlightenment will be left to the Buddha.