Introduction: LED Light Drawing Pens: Tools for Drawing Light Doodles

Picture of LED Light Drawing Pens: Tools for Drawing Light Doodles

My wife Lori is an incessent doodler and I've played with long exposure photography for years. Inspired by the PikaPika light artistry group and the ease of digital cameras we took on the light drawing art form to see what we could do.

We have a large gallery of drawings on our website: There you will also find a description of how we draw and a brief history of light drawing.

Any light source can serve as your creative implement and we shopped for every keychain flashlight, gimick pen and light wand we could find.

But we finally sat down and asked what manner of flashlight would accomadate Lori's most natural and comfortable hand posistion while drawing in mid-air. The answer was to hold the light just like a pencil with instant on/off control directly under the index finger.

Since we wanted to complete each full drawing in one exposure, she needed to be able to switch between different colored pens quickly. We also found that when drawing a large picture we needed the light to be completely exposed on all sides to minimize fading around the edges.

With these parameters, I went hunting for parts at the local electronics and hardware stores and came up with what turned out to be a simple and versatile tool that resulted in some incredible art.

Step 1: Parts List

Picture of Parts List

I'll be creating a blue light pen. Attention to voltage requirements and current draw are important as different color LEDs have different ratings. Here is a list of the parts used.

Plastic Tubing - 5/8" outside diameter - 1/2" inside diameter
Plastic Tubing - 1/2" outside diameter - 3/8" inside diameter
1 Normally Open Switch
1 20 ohm Resistor - size is determined using Ohm's law
3 1.5 volt Button Batteries
Heat shrink tubing
24 gauge wire
Electrician's tape

LEDs, switch, resistors, heat shrink and electrician's tape purchased at local electronics store.

The plastic tubing was "discovered" in the hardware store. Many sizes are displayed on spools which you purchase by the foot. The 5/8" outside diameter clear tubing best fit Lori's hand. The natural curve of the tubing turned out to be ergonomic and it helps keep the pens upright and stable when placed down.

The switch is a "Normally Open" switch which means the circuit is complete and the light is on only when the button is pushed and held down. As soon as the button is released, the circuit is broken and the light goes off. Otherwise, I chose this switch for it's size and shape, not for any of it's other electrical properties.

Adding a resistor to the circuit is good practice obeying Ohm's Law.

Step 2: Warning: Math Content

Picture of Warning: Math Content

I picked up the basics of LED science from the LEDs for Beginners Instructable, reading not only the Instructable itself but the many associated comments. They supply a wealth of theory and important links to everything you want to know about LEDs.

The back of the LED package provides the information we need to properly build the working circuit. Use this information to determine which type and quantity of battery and what size resistor to use.

This blue LED requires a 4.0 Forward Voltage Drop (Vf) to light.

It will pass 25 milliamps of Current (If).

Three 1.5 volt batteries in series will supply 4.5 volts.

Any combination of batteries that add up to the required voltage will do. For instance, AAA batteries are 1.5 volts and 3 in series will give you 4.5 volts.

I found these tiny 1.5 volt button batteries inside of an A23 battery (see the second picture). Three of these work nicely. See this [!-You_ll-be-Surprised.../ 12 Volt Battery Hack Instructable] for more about that.

Obeying Ohm's Law and using this Current Limiting Resister Calculator of LEDs, a 20 ohm resistor should be placed inline in the circuit.

Step 3: Put It Together

Picture of Put It Together

Everything in this simple circuit is placed in series and the parts can be arranged in any order with one exception. The LED will only light if the battery polarity is correct.

Cut an appropriate length of the 5/8" OD tubing and cut a hole close to one end to accomadate the switch. Keep in mind how the pen will fit in your hand and where your finger will lie to operate the button. Since we hold this light like a pen, I place the switch where we can easily push it with the index finger.

Solder the LED, the resistor and the wires in series. Remember, the resistor can be placed anywhere in the circuit.

I place heat shrink over the exposed wires and heat the shrink with a lighter, protecting against short circuits.

Then fold the wiring up and slide inside of a 1" piece of the smaller 1/2" OD plastic tubing.

Step 4: Add the Switch

Picture of Add the Switch

Feed the wires through the 5/8" tube, one through the hole and solder the switch inline.

Continue feeding all wires through the tube. Squeeze the switch into the cutout hole. (I bent the leads to fit.) Squeeze the 1/2" tube into the 5/8" tube.

Step 5: Add the Power Source

Picture of Add the Power Source

Finally add the batteries. This is very low-tech, but I have yet to find or build a battery holder that suits my purpose.

Strip the ends of the wires and wrap the bare wire and a small bit of aluminum foil together into a ball.

(I call myself a photographer, but I obviously need to work on my depth-of-field and flash diffusion skills.)

Use the electrical tape to hold the batteries together in series (postive terminal to negative terminal) and the wire ends in place on each end of the battery stack.

Polarity is important here. Test the light at this point and try reversing the connections if it does not work. (Remember that you have to push the switch while testing.)

Wrap a second piece of tape around the terminal ends. Stretch and wrap the tape tightly, insuring a postive connection.

Fit the battery pack into the end of the finished pen.

Step 6: Finished Product and Drawing Examples

Picture of Finished Product and Drawing Examples

It works for me! Now drawing is another story.

To see what we have done, visit our website: LightDoodles.Com

See even more of our drawings on Flickr.

My next Instructable will outline our techniques for actually doing the art. In the mean time see the Write or Draw with Light Instructable.


николайм (author)2016-05-22

хорошая идея. Планирую сделать цветовое перо на rgb-led, с pwm генератором цветов на ардуино

One80Bits (author)2015-08-16

That is very very cool, you big kids! :)

Kyw Yw Yw (author)2013-06-06

and how much is the time limit?

Kyw Yw Yw (author)2013-06-05

quick question, if this is using LED, how can I see my light drawings?

Dark Light (author)2012-12-09

Thanks for posting this! I loved this instructable and made several of these tools. I made the tubes a little longer so I could put 2 springs in and use AAA batteries with them. My wife and I really enjoyed them! Thank you.

andrea biffi (author)2012-11-29

beautiful art :-) I love your led-paintings

mlavery85 (author)2010-02-21

 The aluminum foil dose not stay on!!!  Why do we need it?

unklstuart (author)mlavery852010-02-21

You are right, the foil is poor engineering and the lights stop working while drawing. I need to figure out a better system or buy something pre-made.

tmos540 (author)unklstuart2012-09-18

Sugru perhaps? Or maybe one of the other conductive putties. I would kinda like to see a version where instead of wire, conductive paint is substituted.

abbeynormal42 (author)unklstuart2010-03-08

I left about an inch of wire exposed and wrapped a layer of foil around the lower 1/2" of it.   Then I folded the remainder of the exposed wire down over the foil and continued wrapping the foil around it.  It stays really well!!

Unrelated: I'm a teacher, and I did some light-drawing with my students for their classroom book.  Would it be okay if I included a picture of your light pen collection?  We have this explanation we wrote at the beginning of what light-drawing is, and your picture would help greatly!

unklstuart (author)abbeynormal422010-03-08

Thanks Abbey. Feel free to use the pen picture!

samalert (author)2012-08-05

This is sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo CLEAN tool loved it !

unklstuart (author)2012-08-05

Thanks for the feature! We have received some great feedback. One fellow used the pens to create a marriage proposal. (She said yes!) We are now available for hire for your event, a photo booth from the dark side. See Here are some recent pictures.

emilyvanleemput (author)2012-08-05


TxPilot (author)2012-01-08

Awesome Instructable! I have sent a few people to this over the last few years. Also wanted to note that this type of photography is also known as Light Painting Photography or Light Graffiti. Picaso did a bit of this himself back in the 40's. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

bakedicecream (author)2011-11-20

how do you see the product? Im confused... you cant drawin the air... so how do you see it?

unklstuart (author)bakedicecream2011-11-21

It is confusing. You can draw in the air. You can not see it but the camera can. Drawing in the dark is like drawing with your eyes closed.

Picture the image in your mind and when you draw, the camera captures all the light from the pens and creates a complete picture.

Hope that helps.

unklstuart (author)2011-11-11

I received a thank you email yesterday from someone that used this tutorial to make the tools for a marriage proposal video drawn with lights.

Quite an honor.

Check it out:

sunshiine (author)2011-11-11

Thanks for sharing all your hard work! So impressive, unique, and fun! Have a perfect fall day!. Sunshiine

mayzskee (author)2011-08-01

hi, how much are they to buy in australia ?

ah-el (author)2010-12-12


pepelepew (author)2010-07-29

Really cool 'able and awesome doodles! I'm trying to build some of these for my brother who's a big fan of long exposure photography. I'm wondering if I have to get the super-bright LEDs (the ones that say on the package "do not look directly, can cause retina damages"), or if the standard 8 or 10mm will do; I thought that by tweaking the picture's luminosity it would make the leds "artificially" brighter, in my case it's way cheaper (Radioshack doesn't exist here, so I can getby mail order 7 or 8 standard 8/10mm LEDs for the price of one super-bright LED), I'm also a total noob in electronics so I wouldn't be worried about burning a 5€ led. Any thoughts?

Ashraf901226 (author)pepelepew2010-09-14

first i like to say sorry to have post here as a reply. for some reason i can use the add comment function.

second i would like to say this is a great project and i love your art

third i would like to recommend some of my idea for you to think about meaning:
a) why not for the light you can dim or make the led brighter for you to make a sense of depth in the picture. my recommendation is to use PWM using 555 ic.that way you can change the intensity of the light.

b) instead of having multiple light pen why not just build 2 light pin 1 being just white and the other one is using the RGB Led that could make almost any colour in the spectrum except for white. if you try making white with it, it would just turn its self so dim it would become off

there this one web page that give great tutorial about this led
but it use a microcontroller. but u can easily change it to use multiple 555 PWM

tiriosh (author)2010-06-15

This looks awesome! I definitely want to try to do this. The problem? Choosing a camera. I've been doing some research and I'd like a camera that isn't too expensive, but that works well for regular pictures, not just exposure photography. One that caught my eye was the Nikon d40. Would that work as well? And do you have any recommendations for cameras?

unklstuart (author)tiriosh2010-06-16

Thanks. All you need is the ability to control the shutter speed and that can be done with almost any camera. The D40 has a manual contol mode. You should be able to get at least 30 seconds of shutter time out of it, if not unlimited.

tiriosh (author)unklstuart2010-06-18

Oh, okay. Thanks for the advice and for getting back to me so quickly! :)

zack247 (author)2010-06-01

would a samsung digimax 101 work? im not sure how to change the exposure, but would it work?

unklstuart (author)zack2472010-06-02

I bet your camera will work. It does not appear to have any manual settings for shutter speed but you may be able to fool it. (I found the manual for the digimax 101 at amazon here: Scroll down to "Product Details".)

First, turn the flash off (see page 37). If the room is dark enough, the camera will leave the shutter open for several seconds, trying to gather enough light to make a decent picture. That is when you can do some drawing. Put the camera on a tripod or on the edge of a table for stability. Try it with the flash on too which will let you see who is drawing.

You may also get a few extra seconds by going to "Exposure" mode and cranking that setting to +2.0EV. That might force the shutter to stay open a little longer.

Good luck and thanks for your question.

s.orellanawps (author)2010-03-16

wow u have to move like super fast to draw those in the air tolatly amazing

 They do it by setting the camera to stay open and sensing light for a really long peroid of time. So it captures all the movments of the light pen in one image. CReating the drawing. So they can move as slow as they like. :)

kcls (author)2010-04-03

I made these a couple months ago and forgot to comment. Great instructable, one of the most highly detailed yet still relatively easy to make I've ever seen! Drawing is harder then it looks, especially because my Canon PowerShot A540 can only leave the shutter open for 15 seconds! It turns out my mom and younger sister are better at them then I am! They were also a big hit with my cousins. They loved them! Thanks!

marc4075 (author)2010-01-29

do you have to use the resistor ?

unklstuart (author)marc40752010-03-08

Hi Marc,

If the voltage is close enough, you can get away with not using a resistor. There is some resistance in the wire and internally in the batteries. And the components are fairly forgiving at these voltages and currents, but there are limits. There is lots of discussion on this here in Instructables.

tjmax139 (author)2010-02-02

i got bored so i stoped

abbeynormal42 (author)2010-01-28

This instructable was my first dive into the world of soldering.  They were a complete success!!

I used 2 3V batteries and a 220 ohm resistor, but other than that, they're pretty much the same.  The pictures came out great!  Thanks so much for these!

djlewis725 (author)2010-01-25

how do you get a good picture? plz help!

unklstuart (author)djlewis7252010-01-26

Well, first put the camera on a tripod or some stable platform, set the shutter to a long exposure and then experiment with the other settings (f-stop, ISO, focus), oh, and do this at night or in a dark room. For more details, check out this tutorial.

KnexFreek (author)2010-01-15


KnexFreek (author)KnexFreek2010-01-15

 5 stars

MjPadfoot (author)2010-01-09

 ummm... there is no way in hell i could ever make this! for one, i was probably drooling and lost in dreams when we took ohm's law in high school. for another, well.... 

but im a big fan of long exposure photography, and my modified flashlight isnt helping any. anyway, can i buy this somewhere?

MjPadfoot (author)MjPadfoot2010-01-09

 btw GREAT instructable! and ur wife is talented! its not easy drawing in air.
so kudos to the both of you:P

zixx65 (author)2009-12-21

this is an awesome light up pen... i made alot of colors out of this idea and it made me think of new ideas to add to this................ YAY!

Stp03bluesi (author)2008-02-20

What is the exact LED # you used> I am having a hard time finding it. Thanks Chris!

unklstuart (author)Stp03bluesi2008-02-20

From what I can read on the package, the company is NTE Electronics and here is their web page

The part number is NTE30070.

You don't buy from them directly but if you click on "Find Nearest Distributor", they list stores that sell their product. I bought mine from the local electronics store, but you can find many LEDs online much cheaper. Here is one site that looks promising -

 Hi there, Im not w you can call an expert. Nevertheless Im soldering some for my kids' xmas presents. Im using different kind of leds: High intensity, Diffused, and multicolored leds. I think the important issue here is keeping an eye in voltage and result expected.

Gadre (author)2009-12-09

This is awesome man! Congratulations!

I have a question though.. would Mrs. Stuart prefer a single pen with a switch that allows her to select one of several colors? together with the other switch that blanks off the light completely, when the light is not required?

Thank you.

Freakymonkey (author)2009-12-02

Those are so cool what an awesome christmas gift to give!!!!

unklstuart (author)2009-12-02

Thanks for featuring this again.

Check out what some of the new breed are doing:

25 Spectacular Light Painting Images

Reece 24 (author)2009-09-25

way coooool

sw33t (author)2009-06-03

using the led pen can draw a pic on a wall or..? if anyone know where to buy pls let me know thx... :P

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