Meet fantastic beasts created by ‘painting’ with light

A photographer uses slow shutter speeds and rapid strokes of illumination to depict the menagerie in his mind's eye.

By Catherine Zuckerman
Published 5 Sept 2022, 10:03 BST
Photographer Darren Pearson’s childhood love of dinosaurs looms large in this image of an Amargasaurus ascending a staircase inside an abandoned shopping mall in Hawthorne, California.
Photograph by Dariustwin

A chance encounter with a coffee-table book set graphic designer Darren Pearson on a new artistic path. He was charmed by one element in particular: a 1949 black-and-white photograph of Pablo Picasso at work. But instead of a brush, Picasso is using a light to “paint” his creation in midair. “I was captivated,” says Pearson. “I was like, How is this possible?”

Photographer Gjon Mili was able to capture Picasso creating objects with light by setting his camera to a slow shutter speed. Pearson, founder of the light-painting company Dariustwin, now uses that same long-exposure technique—but he doubles down on the artistry, taking the photos and painting the subjects. And he works only at night.

In an image that’s a composite of two exposures, a coyote in rainbow hues howls to the sky near California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Iconic landscapes of the western United States inspire Pearson, who is passionate about their value: “The environment impacts everything,” he says. “Animals rely on it, and we rely on it—and yet we treat it with such disrespect.”
Photograph by Dariustwin
A Gallimimus stalks California’s Badwater Basin in Death Valley. To capture the dinosaur against the stars, Pearson merged two exposures into one image.
Photograph by Dariustwin
An octopus hovers in Big Sur, California.
Photograph by Dariustwin
A butterfly brightens a spot near Pearson’s California home.
Photograph by Dariustwin
A bee alights in the Beehives area of Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park.
Photograph by Dariustwin

Pearson begins by placing his camera on a tripod, aimed at the desired backdrop. Then, wearing black to disappear into the darkness, he steps in front of the lens and starts painting. His tool, which he designed and calls the Night-Writer, resembles a marker with interchangeable coloured tips. To the casual observer, he might look like someone frantically searching with a flashlight for lost keys, he says. But he’s actually sketching a life-size image of a subject from his mind’s eye.

Several muses are evident in Pearson’s work. Dinosaurs make frequent appearances: “That’s the five-year-old me who wanted to be a palaeontologist,” he says. Rugged landscapes also recur, especially those of California, where Pearson lives in a cabin in the woods with his wife, Jordan, and their young son, Jasper.

Pearson is also fascinated by time, not only the hundreds of millions of years represented by rock formations but also the brief spell of a 30-second shutter speed. Subtle shifts occur even within those short periods, he says. “The stars move, the moon creates shadows. You have a natural evolution of time.”

Sometimes ideas come from unlikely places, such as this drainage pipe in California’s Los Padres National Forest. Pearson saw it while hiking, then returned that night to transform the graffitied, corrugated metal into a backdrop for a Triceratops.
Photograph by Dariustwin
Pearson’s designs often exhibit a gestural quality featuring a frenzy of energetic lines. But he has also developed a series of spare, single-line light paintings, such as this heron reflected in a seasonal creek near his home.
Photograph by Dariustwin
Pearson had to crouch under a rock formation in Los Padres National Forest to create this trio of bright-eyed bats encircled by sprouting vegetation; the image combines three exposures.
Photograph by Dariustwin

This story appears in the October 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.


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