Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Light Table Explorations

It may be the short days and long dark nights of winter, especially in the northern tier of states that make me think about light tables. I am always attracted to them, but now, especially, I love the pool of light spilling out from it  and illuminating the faces and hands of children and adults.

A light table typically has a translucent top illuminated from below and is often used for making tracings, examining color transparencies, back-lighting–except when it’s not. These tables are used in architect’s offices, design studios,  for home crafts, in museums and preschools. When they are in exhibits, art studios or preschools, they might be covered with sand or salt, doilies, blocks, or x-rays.

Light tables have found their way to museums and preschools from several sources. One is the pioneering work of Victor D’Amico, the first director of education (1937 - 1969) of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). His philosophy of creative teaching placed children at the center and connected creativity to innovation for preparing children to live in a democratic society. One of the motivational objects D’Amico designed for MoMA’s studio classes first called the Young People’s Gallery was a table-top light box where children could mix colors to create new ones using colored Plexiglas shapes.

More recently, light tables have found a place in museums inspired by the innovative pedagogy practiced in the preschools and infant-toddler centers of the city of Reggio Emilia (Italy). In these centers, there is great respect for the child as a capable learner and recognition of the environment as teacher and source of beauty. Teachers observe, listen, and record learning about children’s thinking. Light is considered a material, a language, and a way for children to create new languages and possibilities.

Dialogues With Light
Light is something you can touch and yet, not really touch. This and the power of illumination invite small hands, roomy imaginations, artists’ sensibilities, and scientists’ observations to engage in playful and serious explorations. It’s not unusual to see children and adults encountering light tables in immediate sensory, physical, and emotional ways.

A light infused building platform
Investigations may start with mixing colors, stacking and overlapping colored Plexi paddles, tissue paper, or colored cellophane paper to see what happens and to make new colors. From a basket a child may select everything green and arrange a landscape. This landscape may dissolve into patterns of shells and buttons or a collage made with plastic caps, sea glass, or pom-poms.

Papel Picado  patterns in En Mi Familia

Sorting and arranging objects and materials on the light table, one child might notice that light shines through some objects a lot, others a little, and some not at all. Another child is interested in the patterns of light and dark from paper doilies, perforated designs of papel picado, holes punched in paper, and mesh. Why does light pass through the acrylic prism one way and pass through differently if the prism is turned around? Light invites spoken and unspoken questions ? What does this object look like when filled with light? Where are the shadows when light comes form below?

Illuminating bones at Explora
Placing a book and small figures at the light table or paper puppets or paper dolls, children tell and retell stories to themselves, friends, and parents. They explore the form and feel of letter and number shapes swirling yarn or bending wire or glow sticks; they make squiggles in the sand, or trace shapes with a pen on transparencies. The vocabulary of light, its properties, and effects emerges and grows from these explorations: bright, glisten, glow, glimmer, shimmer, soft, shine, sparkly, shadowy, luminous.
Clearing the way for light, small hands plow sand
The light table makes it easier to see what can otherwise be difficult to see. A face glows as someone leans across the light with a new question, shares a crumpled candy wrapper, or points to the pool of light on the ceiling. Light tables illuminate x-rays and reveal the insides of snakes; the light shows the delicate details of a flower petal, feathers or a butterfly wing, enlarged under a magnifier.

There isn’t any subject matter area that the naturally interdisciplinary light table and its vast array of companion materials can’t cover in open-ended ways. To these rich possibilities, children and adults bring their interests, their many ways of exploring and knowing, and what is beautiful to them about the light.

Bringing Good Things to Light
I am impressed with the capacity of light tables–in their many variations in school, exhibit, and studio settings–to engage both children and adults. Light tables seem to have physical, social, and cognitive dimensions that work together as if as a single dimension. In a semi-darkened area, light connects people and establishes a sense of place, often in an evocative and beautiful way. Within this place, it is possible to explore the physical and expressive qualities of light.   

I am also drawn to how easy it is to be competent and creative at light tables at every age. Intent and absorbed as they explore light tables, infants and toddlers will pull themselves up on and crawl over light tables; with each movement they notice how light interacts with and changes different materials and objects, including their hands. Light tables also capture the attention and interest of adults as children’s companions, engaging their questions and ideas. But they are not just for children or for adults who are with children. Perhaps you remember the u-tube video of Kseniya Simonova, a Ukrainian artist who combined music and her sand painting skills to depict Germany's invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII.  

Changing the set-up or setting of a light table–even just slightly–generates intriguing new possibilities. Place mirrors along the side, at the end, or overhead to reflect children’s activity to the child as well as to the adult. Shift from a flat to angled surface or from white to colored lights. Place a tub with bubble solution on top of the light table; spread the table with sand; put the light table inside a small tent; or add an overhead projector to project colors, shapes on the wall. Any of these variations launch new explorations.

Museum of Science, London     Light wall in Reggio Emilia

Follow The Light
• The same mylar light box step-by-step: http://makeprojects.com/Project/Mylar-Light-Box/153/1
• Science Museum of London’s light table: www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/interactives/launchpad/light_table.aspx


  1. This article is wonderful. Do you have a suggestion for how a light table can be tied in to a black and white photography exhibit?

  2. art, this is a good question and one I have had to noodle on for a couple of days. I'm not sure at all that I have come up with workable ideas, but I hope they might be starting points. Perhaps the light table can be a place where visitors experiment with composition and work with black, white and grays. Materials might be black, clear, gray and maybe stippled gels in different shapes. A view finder (or view finders in different sizes) might invite experimentation or perhaps a selection of black and white photographs mounted above the light table might prompt thinking and trying. The Papel Picado photo in this posting might have some clues for what to do. Whatever you decide to do, I hope you act on some hunches and see what visitors do with those starting points. And please, let me know what you find out.

  3. Thank you so much for pondering this. Do light tables get hot to the touch? Can they be left on all day?

  4. Light tables are left on all day in museums that I know of. The luminosity of the light is part of what draws children and adults to the table so keeping it on keeps it attractive. I think of the surface feeling what I think of as pleasantly warm.

  5. Hi, thanks for this insightful article! I've recently bought a light panel and wonder how I could create an environment that is safe enough not to damage my 2 yr old's eyesight. Is there a maximum amount of time for each time he uses it and how dark should the surroundings be? Thanks in advance for your help!

    1. I think several factors work together so that the light is not damaging to even young eyes. The frosted plexi top helps soften and diffuse the light. Also children (and adults) are typically arranging objects and shifting their vision from the table to the surrounding area rather than staring at a bright light.