Painting With Embedded Optics and Colour Mixing LED Light Source




Introduction: Painting With Embedded Optics and Colour Mixing LED Light Source

Adding itty bitty lights to my painting "Sanguinaria" by embedding optical fibres allowed me to capture a sense of the energy of the plant. I chose to use a colour mixing LED light source to give it a "rainbow aura" kind of feel. Plain white light would have worked as well, but why not go over the top?

The light source is affixed to the stretcher bars on the back of the painting and powered by a 9volt battery. I have paintings where used a unit than can be plugged into a wall socket, so that's always an option.

This instructable will take you though the steps needed to add light to any painting or photograph.

It's always a good idea to read through all the steps before beginning!

Step 1: Tools and Materials


  • Gallery wrap canvas (choose a deep sided canvas)
  • Single Strand optical filament - I used 3 thicknesses - The Fibre Optic Store
  • A small battery powered, single LED light source - The Fibre Optic Store
  • 9 volt battery
  • Sewing needles
  • Electrical tape
  • Tacky glue or white glue
  • Toothpicks or wooden skewers


  • Straight edged clippers - These are like nail clippers but with a straight edge. Great for toenails too. Ewwww.

You may also need small screws and a screwdriver, depending on how you want to affix your light source.

Step 2: Attach the Light Source

The light kit comes with a small toggle switch that can be screwed in place. I chose to attach it to the cross piece in the centre of my canvas. I did not want the switch to show on the edge of the painting, but that is an option if you prefer. If your canvas does not have a centre bar, just centre it on the bottom stretcher bar.

My battery was installed using elastic and a couple of thumb tacks, to secure it and make changing it easy. Velcro would have worked too. The same concept can be used along the inside of the bottom stretcher bar.

Just snap the attachment onto your battery and check that your light is working. At this point you want the light itself left loose to make attaching the optical filaments easier.

Step 3: Cut the Filaments

I used 3 different thicknesses on this painting because I wanted to mimic movement and a pulsing feel. You can use any size you prefer. Just a note: I used .25mm filament and it is tiny, like a thread. Although it gave me very subtle lights in the painting, it was difficult to work with. I would recommend going for larger sizes. Try .75mm or .50mm. You can go even larger to 1mm for very bright points of light.

To judge the lengths of filament you'll need, measure the distance from the LED light to the farthest corner and add 6 inches. Using scissors, cut all your filaments to this length. Each cut filament represents one point of light on your artwork. It helps to have an idea how many light points you want to add, but you can always add more as you go.

Step 4: Insert the Filaments

You will need sewing needles that are approximately the same size as your filaments. A bit bigger is better, otherwise you'll go crazy trying to thread the filaments through the hole you made.

I wrapped some masking tape around the end of my needle to form a sort of handle and save my fingers from being poked with holes. I also had the canvas on my easel so that I could access both sides of the canvas for puling the filaments through. If you don't have an easel, try propping up your canvas on stacked books. One stack on either side high enough bring it up off your surface and allow you to pull the filaments.

Use your needle to poke a hole in the canvas on the front. Leave your needle in the hole so you don't lose track of it. When you have your filament ready, remove the needle and thread the filament through the hole. Pull it through to about half its length. This will prevent it from slipping out while you go on to the next spot.

Once you have added all your filaments, you will have a canvas that looks like it grew plastic hair.

Step 5: Glue the Filaments

For this step you will need to work on the back side of your canvas. Get your glue and toothpick or wooden skewer ready. I suggest pouring some glue onto a square of foil or cardboard.

Begin by pulling most of your filament to the back, leaving about 3 inches sticking out on the front of the canvas. Hang onto the filament with one hand to prevent slippage as you place a dab of glue on the filament where it meets the canvas. You will want to be sure the glue is touching both the filament and the canvas surface. You only need a small amount to secure the filaments. This step is a bit finicky because once the glue is applied, you want to avoid touching or moving that filament. Lay the glued filament down making sure it it moves as little as possible, although tacky glue is very good at keeping them in place even when wet.

Once you have all your filaments glued, leave them to dry completely. You'll know when they are dry because the glue will have gone transparent.

Step 6: Clip the Filaments

This is a fun step! Working on the front of the canvas, you are going to clip off the excess filaments. Before you begin, make sure you are using your straight edged clipper right up against the canvas. Also take the time to be sure you are holding you clipper flat against the surface. Any tilt will change the way the light shines through the filament. You want the surface of your work to be a smooth as possible.

So go ahead and clip off all those hairs...very satisfying work.

Step 7: Get Ready to Connect to the Light Source

Now you are almost ready to connect your filaments to the light source. Begin by gently gathering all the filaments together. Without pulling on them, gather them loosely in such a way that they all end up pointing to your light. In the first photo you can see that I used a bit of masking tape to hold the bunch together. Remember that you need some wiggle room be sure that none of the filaments are pulled tight.

Once you have you filaments pointing at the light, you can judge where to cut. The cut end of the filaments will be touching your light. Make sure there is at least an inch of extra length before you cut. You also want to make sure you can move the light so that it creates as straight a line as possible with the filaments. If you end up with a bend where you attach the light, it may not light every filament.

I know at this point you want to see results, but it's worth it to slow down and take your time with this step.

Once you are sure of where you need to cut, use some electrical tape to bind the filaments together tightly, just above your cut line. I added masking tape a couple of inches below my cut line as well to prevent the excess filaments from going all over the place.

Use your straight edged clipper to cut at or just below the electrical tape. You want a nice flat, clean cut so that all the filaments become properly lighted.

Step 8: Connect the Light Source

Now it's time for the big finale! The kit I used for this demo came with a heat-shrink tube for connecting the light and filaments. If you are using a different light source, perhaps one that plugs in, electrical tape can do the same job. You are aiming for a secure connection that prevents any light from escaping the confines of your connection. You want all the available light to shine on the filament ends.

If you are using a kit like mine, slide the provided tube over the light and position it at about the middle of the tube. Then slide your bundle of filaments into the other end. You want your filaments to touch the light inside the tube. I suggest you use some electrical tape at both ends of the tube so that nothing can slip when you add heat to the tube.

I followed the instructions for the heat-shrink tube, but I must warn you, I found it pretty creepy. The manufacturer of the kit suggests a candle or a heat gun. For this application, a candle is sure to either melt your filaments or set the canvas on fire. No thanks! Since I don't own a heat gun I opted for a butane lighter. So...very very carefully, pull your tube up and away from the canvas...without pulling on the filaments. I took a long time to finish this step because I was being very careful. You need to run the heat of the flame back and forth along the tube on the underside, until it begins to shrink. Then do the same along the top edge by using the bottom of the flame. 2 important things here....don't touch the flame to the tube and keep it moving.

I used more tape around the length of the tube, wrapping tightly.


I think that next time I will skip the tube and just use electrical tape to form a tight tube around the connection. I'll leave it up to you to decide.

Step 9: Finish Up!

I used some masking tape to hold the filaments in place, and prevent them from going higher than the back of the stretcher bars. I just gently pulled them down and secured them with tape.


You could add a piece of cardboard cut to size, but allowing access to the switch and glue it to the back of the stretcher bars. This would give the back a nice clean look and protect the filaments.

Add your wire for hanging the canvas and turn on your light.

Now just enjoy the amazing, magical thing you created!

Step 10: The Magic of Light in a Painting

I think the possibilities for using light as part of a painting or any visual image are endless. Can you imagine how any image could be enlivened using this simple process?

The painting I used for the tutorial "Sanguinaria" is a mixed-media painting that incorporates photography, oil paint, paper and of course, optic fibres or filaments. I have plans to experiment further with this technique and I hope the tutorial will spark new ideas for you as well. Thank you for having a look!



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    3 years ago

    What a fantastic idea! So neat to see your process. :)


    Reply 3 years ago

    Thanks! I had fun making it.