All Things Neon

Bright and vibrant colours can have a special and compelling way of capturing your attention and influencing positive emotions. Brighter colours can make us feel energised and excited, the brighter the better. And when it comes to bright and bold colours, there is no palette that embodies it better than neons, taking the crowning glory of luminescence. Neon colours – also referred to as fluorescent colours – are essentially extremely luminescent versions of primary and secondary colours. But neons are not found on the traditional colour spectrum. These vivid shades can only be chemically and artificially created and are actually a relatively new addition to the art world, only coming into creation in the last century. However, though luminescent art supplies are a relatively new concept, the notion neon itself was first investigated and developed through the creation of none other than the neon lamp.

During the late 18th century, scientist Henry Cavendish was conducting experiments as he made attempts to find the elements that are found in the air we breathe. In his studies Cavendish found that when he removed all the oxygen and nitrogen from a container of air, there was still a small amount of unidentified gas left behind. His findings were continued by scientists Sir William Ramsay and John William Strutt, who discovered that this unidentified gas was actually argon, one of the six naturally occurring noble gases in the earth’s atmosphere. Ramsey did not stop there however, as he was convinced that there were other gases to be found. He teamed up with his colleague Morris W. Travers to conduct further experiment and their experiments lead to the discovery of three more noble gases: neon, krypton and xenon.

Daniel McFarlan Moore created the first fluorescent light tubes (that he named ‘Moore Lamps’) in 1896, using iodized mercury gas to create the luminescent glow. However, it was inventor Georges Claude who expanded on this concept, instead turning to iodized noble gases to create this modified invention. And in 1910, he successfully created the very first neon lamp: a lamp that emitted a vibrant red-orange light that saw a boom in popularity by 1915. Though this was only the start of the neon light adventure as neon would soon expand into a varying array of colours, though it was not only neon gas that was used to create these novel lights. It was later found that the use of each noble gas provides a different lamp colour and by mixing these gases you could create a limitless array of colours. Though it is not only the neon gas that is used to create these lights, the name stuck for the sake of ease and this is what we know as neon lights today, with neon creating a red-orange, argon a violet to pale blue, helium emitting an orange or a pink-red, krypton an off-white, green or yellow and finally xenon sourcing a grey-blue or green (radon, the sixth noble gas, was wisely excluded from this particular use due to its undesirable and highly radioactive qualities – though it is said to give off a yellow light when iodized).

It wasn’t until the 1930s, that luminescence started to find its way into the world of art supplies, through nothing more than a tragic accident, though this particular tragedy lead to a much brighter future, pun intended. In Berkely, California 1933, an ambitious 19-year-old Bob Switzer had big aspirations to go to medical school and was working in a pickle and ketchup factory as a summer job to save up money. Unfortunately for Switzer, his medical school plans abruptly came to a halt when he sustained a head injury that ended up having long term effects on his memory and his eyesight. He was sadly confined to a darkened basement for several months during his recovery, however it was here that he and his younger brother Joe began to experiment with ultra-violet light and naturally occurring fluorescent compounds from their father’s pharmaceutical job. These business savy brothers eventually went on to found the ‘Day-Glo Color Corp’ in 1946 and began to develop and manufacture fluorescent paints, pigments and other luminescent products.

During the 1940s these fluorescent paints found more uses than just creativity, as the military made use of this invention for many purposes, amidst World War II. For example, they used fabric panels on ground troop uniforms to prevent friendly fire on allies and on aircrafts to prevent mid-air collisions as well as lighting up landing strips at night. As the war came to an end these pigments were incorporated into construction cones, safety vests and street signs. Toy manufacturers also took advantage of these colours appealing to their youthful target audience and opted to use these pigments to colour their products and merchandise. Furthermore, the art world saw a rise in fluorescence during the 1960s and 70s (also know as the hippy era) as artists such as Victor Moscoso, Wes Wilson and Bonnie MacLean emerged, taking their audience into their psychedelic creations of neon colour.

Today, luminescent supplies are extremely versatile and their possibilities endless. Neon supplies now come in the form of paints, markers, pencils, crayons, inks and more. These pigments allow an artist to explore a whole new element in their artwork, breaking free from the more conventional and traditional rules of creativity and colour. The use of neon and luminescence can take your artwork in a direction that you have never explored before, capturing your creations in an artificial gradience that simply cannot be found anywhere else. So really, the only thing left to do is sit down in a darkened room and let your imagination glow.

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