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Showcase » Psychedelic Lighting Workshop 1997 » Liquids

Create a Liquid Light Show

Background: 
Perfected  by such firms as Headlights, the Holy See, and the North American Ibis Alchemical Co. for the Family Dog's shows in San Francisco, the liquid oil projection or "wet show" is a central image of psychedelia.  

Numerous examples of this projection technique can be seen in film, video, and photographs from events at the Filmore and Avalon in  San Francisco, as well as at music festivals such as Monteray Pop. Reproduced widely around the world this simple colored oil and water projection was common as an element at popular musical events well into the 1970s.

Research: 
Despite the prevalence of the liquid light show, little information exists on specific techniques for reproducing liquid oil projection effects. Some theatrical lighting texts discuss the process, involving a glass dish, a standard over-head projector and colored oils and water as a simple effect to achieve. In practice we found it much more difficult. The only specific information students found about liquid oil projection follows: 

A widely available overhead projector may be used to project kinetic liquid projections.. :ambient effect.. Use a overhead projector with bottom lighting, preferably with a quartz-halogen lamp. Put a dimmer on the main power, and if you can, add a supplemental fan to insure adequate ventilation. mask off the edges of the stage, place the dishes (old glass clock faces) on top (a small one in a larger one) and add the water and oil based dyes, usually just to the space between the two dishes. For oil dye, I use Keystone aniline dyes, and for water, I use photo retouching colors.. 91% alcohol can be added to the water solutions to enable the water based liquids to become darker as they evaporate. For clear oil, of course clear mineral oil. With the colors, you'll learn less is more. Then you're ready to go, turn up the dimmer slightly and focus. Mask off the edges of the screen area, remembering to cover the edges of the screen-area as much as possible... Are your dyes ready? Then turn the overhead up and BLOB-O-RAMA!!!... Remember..easy does it... Good luck!                                                        Chris Beaumont, chris@ncafe.com

excerpt From The Official alt.rave FAQ 

First Failures: 
At the first Psychedelic Lighting Workshop in February 1997 we attempted the effect described above. Projector and dimmer were easy enough to acquire. Pyrex pie pans were substituted for clock faces, but were found to distort the light too much, creating rings near the edges. As a last resort we borrowed the clock faces out of two of the clocks in the control booth of the theatre. These were squarish with a continuously sloping surface and thinner and clearer than the pyrex. They worked beautifully but, being the same size, would not nest together cleanly.  

To dye the water we experimented with standard generic supermarket food coloring, Dok Martin's dyes, Rotring artists colors (synthetic dyes), and photo-retouching fluid. The food coloring was found to be superior in its purity of color and transparency. The Dok Martin's dyes mixed to muddy colors too quickly when combined, the Rotring colors were too opaque, and the photo-retouching colors available to us were only in muddy colors.  

For the oil part of the mix we experimented with a number of different materials. Various cooking oils were tried, a blue colored Vasoline Intensive Care bath oil, generic baby oil, and even colored lamp oil (dangerous!).  We were initially unsuccessful in finding a local source for pure mineral oil, and were unable to experiment with it at the first workshop. The bath oil, due to its soap content, would too quickly combine its color with the water. The cooking oil floated on the water as did the baby oil, and lamp oil. We were disappointed, though, that the color of the lamp oil and the cooking oils were to pale to register at all when projected. We also found the smell of the baby oil objectionable.  

What became the initial stumbling block of the February workshop was the inability to find a suitable dye for the oil. Water based dyes such as those mentioned above will not go into solution in oil. Powdered aniline dyes similar to the Keystone dyes discussed in the alt.rave.FAQ, also would not go into solution in oil. We tried everything we could think of, we asked our friends, and we roamed the arts and crafts stores. Seeing oils in the art store for thinning oil paints someone suggested using oil paint as a coloring agent.  

Messy. smelly, and difficult to work up, we attempted to use oil paints as an oil colorant. While it looked promising in the pan, it was far too opaque to produce the brilliant colors we were seeking. It also created a very thick fluid that did not float and break apart easily into blobs in the water.  

Discovery: 
The issue of dying the oil plagued me for months. I needed a chemist. Instead, several days before the October workshop my wife Melissa and I were again canvassing the craft stores. Here Melissa had a brainstorm that solved the problem. Being a baker, she knew that water did not mix with liquefied sugar candy. It seemed reasonable that candy dyes might dye our oil. As it turns out, candy dye is oil and propylene glycol based and mixes very easily with both cooking and mineral oils. As an added bonus the candy dyes come in a multitude of colors and are non-toxic.  

At the October workshop students discovered the best materials to use. For the oil, mineral oil worked best. (We finally located it at a Southern States store).  To dye the oil the best candy colors to use were pink (looks red), green, and blue. The other colors we tried, yellow, orange, and red, were too opaque, or did not make good color combinations with the water dyes.  

To dye the water students chose yellow and blue food coloring. The favorite color combinations are visible in the photos from the workshop.  

Technique: 
Masking the edges of the image proved to be an important visual element. An oval shaped opaque cutout was placed on the surface of the projector on which the glass clock faces were placed. (This is difficult to see in the photos as the image is larger than the projection screen.) Hiding the edges is important to obscure the edges of the dishes, and the hands rotating and moving them.  

The best results were obtained by dropping small amounts of colored oil with an eye dropper into lightly colored water. The mixture could then be rotated by spinning the clock face slowly on the projector.  Lifting the mixture would move it in and out of focus, creating an even more visual variety. Students even placed a glass construction block in the beam of light. This fuzzed and distorted the image. (photo at left). The block could then be rotated as well. The combinations were endless.  

The most complex image was created by placing two separate oil and water mixtures in two clock faces one on top of the other. At some points the liquids would be swirling in opposite directions. 

Summing Up:
The responses to the workshop from the students were overwhealmingly positive. Two of the students involved with the 1997 workshop went on to refine their "wet-show" skills and produced several other shows resulting ultimately in a longer piece presented as part of the "Mad Lighting Extravaganza" (otherwise known as "light shows until you puke) in 1999.

The techniques learned from the first two workshops were later refined in 2002 and 2004 projects that can be viewed from the showcase page.

Traffic and comments to this part of the website have been steady for the last ten years. If you are visiting I hope you find the information useful and I invite your comments or questions.

-Lee (updated Fall 2006) rlk3p@virginia.edu