Light Painting Enters The 21st Century

Nils Forsblom
Nils Forsblom wrote this on

Image: Gjon Mili/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Is it possible to reimagine Picasso and Mili’s work with a smartphone? Light painting enters the 21st Century.

The year is 1949. In a darkened room in Vallauris, South of France, Pablo Picasso is working with a small electric light. The 68-year-old artist’s moves are swift and athletic as he draws lines, curves and shapes on a canvas of thin air. Those images of pure light were captured by the photographer Gjon Mili for Life Magazine.

Mili, an engineer by trade, made a name for himself with light paintings and photoflash photography. Previously, he had attached tiny flashlights to the boots of an ice-skater and recorded trailing lines of light as she waltzed through the air. He showed that work to Picasso who agreed to an experiment of combining art with Mili’s technical expertise.

So fascinated was Picasso by the results of their initial work together he agreed to five further sessions with Mili. The photos generated by those sessions equated to 30 images, all preserved by the camera. Featured were familiar Picasso motifs: bulls, centaurs and Greek profiles.

Capturing light and movement through art was nothing new. It has been repeated in various forms since 1889, but Picasso’s pictures, which appeared in Life, were iconic and transformative. (You can read more about the history of light painting photography here.)

At the time, Mili was using cutting edge equipment and technique to construct his photos. His work of capturing motion on film was a combination of high-tech, skill and finely honed talent.

Image: Gjon Mili/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Today, you do not have to be a Mili to create these types of images. Adtile Technologies, a company known for its sensor-enabled Motion Ads, has made it possible to capture motion with a smartphone so that anyone of any skill can create these highly technical images.

Introducing the Air Pencil

Today, we’re introducing something very cool that has never been done before—we call it the Air Pencil. Air Pencil (now in beta) that lets anyone capture freeform movement in space using their mobile device. How does it work? Think of your phone as Picasso’s electric light. Move, swing, glide the smartphone through the air and your motions will be captured, not on camera, but on screen.

Additionally, while Picasso and Mili’s light paintings were in 2D, Air Pencil lets you capture motion in 3D, as beautiful lines, curves and shapes you can literally move through and explore in ways never imagined possible in the time of Picasso.

Air Pencil is intuitively easy to use. It is a lightweight app that runs on a mobile web browser. Since it is a web app, the majority of the code powering it runs on a remote server. All you need to get started is a URL.

Air Pencil — a whole new creative freedom.

When you initiate the app, you’ll see a screen with a three-axis helper and a small red position indicator at the origin. On the bottom left and right of this screen are joysticks for panning and zooming. These items are all within the web-browser’s viewport, which you can think of as your virtual camera in the 3D space.

Sketch abstractions. Out of thin air.

To begin recording your movements, simply press down on any point in the the screen and move your smartphone through the air. Release the screen to stop or pause your recording. Want to share your work? You can easily send a recorded 3D space file to anyone as a link in a text message or put it on social media.

Behind-the-scenes technology

As you can imagine, creating an app like Air Pencil requires serious technical engineering. You have to be able to capture three-dimensional motion with a high degree of accuracy, whether the user is swinging the phone in a large elaborate swirl or drawing a tiny circle.

To do this, the Air Pencil taps into a smartphone’s native micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) — namely the three-axis magnetometer, three-axis accelerometer and three-axis gyroscope. It then calls on sophisticated machine algorithms to reliably infer the precise movements of the user based on sensor data.

Adtile Air Pencil

Where would you use such an application? The answer: education, art, and collaboration. For example, you might use Air Pencil in a physics class to teach students about flight dynamics, or how objects move through space. As a collaboration tool, several users can draw independently with different colors and then combine those images on screen. Finally, the application has huge potential in the art world as the images you create can be shown on any size screen.

An art-inspired technology

Picasso and Mili were the inspiration for Air Pencil. Picasso, the father of modern art, liked to experiment with a plethora of media. And Mili brought a high tech element into that instinctive world or art.

The truth is, I wanted to go back in time and recreate the flashlight and camera technique with a phone and see what people would do with it. What kind of art will they create?

At a basic, intrinsic level, art inspires technical innovation. The two are inextricably combined. In fact, I got the inspiration for Adtile in 2013 when I was visiting the Alexander Calder exhibit at the LACMA. At the exhibit, quotes from the sculptor Calder lined the walls: “Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions.”

That was my aha moment. That quote influenced me to start working on sensory-enabled motions for mobile devices and turn Adtile into a motion technology company.

Today I rely on artists daily to benchmark all of our products at Adtile. Our work is driven by Picasso, Calder, James Turrell, Mark Rothko, Anish Kapoor, Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel and more. The work of these artists are an endless pool for innovation.

When you get down to it, art is about taking something technologically or emotionally complex and turning it into something simple, functional and beautiful. It’s also about making people smile. Or as Calder said, “Above all be happy.” And that is what I hope to do with Air Pencil, make people smile.

Nils Forsblom

About the Author

Nils is the CEO & Founder of Adtile. You can reach him at

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