Artist Draws Using Sunlight as His Paintbrush

Michael Papadakis works on what he calls heliography art.
Michael Papadakis says each of his creations takes from one to 50 hours. Chad Vaughan

For years, Michael Papadakis made art the traditional way, using paint and a paintbrush. It wasn't until his last year of college that his teacher reminded him — you can make art with anything.

"I found that way more interesting, it's way more fun," Papadakis, 31, tells MNN. "With paints, it's such an extensive process of cleaning the paintbrushes, setting up the paints, the stenches and smells. One of the things I clearly remember is being inside painting and looking outside the window and seeing how sunny and beautiful it was and wishing I could be outside making art."

heliography animals
Papadakis created this Savannah cat perched on top of a tortoise. @Sunscribes

In 2012, Papadakis bought a one-way ticket to see the world, heading to Central Asia, a part of the world he knew nothing about. As he trekked, his backpack was getting heavy as it was filled with pencils, paints and crayons. Necessity is the mother of invention, he points out.

"I saw a magnifying glass on my friend's table and I thought I bet it would work to draw. I went outside, and it worked. I said this is going to be the tool to travel with. I'm never going to carry a canvas. I'm going to create and leave my art behind. I'm not hoarding creativity."

So Papadakis began "drawing" using the magnifying glass and sunlight to etch his creations onto wood. He started in Korea and traveled for a year and a half, eventually making it to Greece and France. He left his art as a form of payment for people's hospitality along the way.

The sun welcomes him back

Michael Papadakis demonstrates his art.
Papadakis demonstrates his art at the GoPro Games in Vail, Colorado. Chad Vaughan

When Papadakis returned to the United States, he also returned to music, his other creative love, putting art on the sidelines for about a year. But then he moved from California to Colorado and the sun beckoned.

"The sun was so bright there that I got nostalgic for my trip and all the mountains looked like Central Asia," he says. "The sun was saying, 'I'm back. Test me out again.'"

So using sun art, Papadakis worked on everything from portraits and landscapes to signage, promoting it as a green, alternative source of advertising. He referred to his work as heliography. His tools were magnifying glasses, page magnifiers and other lenses. As the lenses became bigger, he honed his technique.

"I have to harness the energy without it leaking over the sides and the fire getting too big," he says.

heliography Statue of Liberty
Created as a gift for talk host Trevor Noah, this Washington D.C.-themed piece is embedded with a lens. @Sunscribes

Papadakis says each piece takes from one to 50 hours, depending on its complexity. He can work anywhere there is sun and that includes from the first ray of light until it hits the horizon. He likes to work in beautiful places in nature, primarily because he videos the process and feels the environment is a key part of the art.

In most cases he dons what he calls his beekeeper outfit — an array of UV-protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. The sun, after all, is hot and prolonged exposure to its rays is dangerous.

"I've felt heat obviously on my body and immediately moved," Papadakis says. "When I was first getting started, a lot of times I would leave my magnifying glass on the chair or table. It's only 'on' in the sunshine when sun is hitting it at the right angle. And 45 minutes later the sun moved and it kind of turned it on and I burned a hole through my backpack or my hat."

Reinterpreting the magnifying glass

heliography Great Smoky Mountains
This Great Smoky Mountains art is on display at Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. @Sunscribes

The artist becomes animated when talking about his art tool of choice, the magnifying glass. He points out that it's a common icon found in search engines and on our phones.

"It's a tool for searching. We don't realize this tool that represents a search for knowledge and if we take it outside, it becomes a completely different tool and we can use it for completely different reasons. For me, that's what gets me most excited."

Most of the artist's work now is commercial. He's done performance art at live events and worked with companies such as GoPro, The Balvenie, Ripley's Believe it or Not and TedX Mile High. Papadakis, who now lives in Orange County, California, still occasionally does commissioned pieces, including portraits and landscapes. He shares his work on his website and social media, including Facebook, where he's known as @Sunscribes.

Here he creates a project for the Balvenie distillery, based in Scotland.

Papadakis talks about how small children are often destructive with magnifying glasses, using them to hurt insects or burn leaves. He hopes to inspire them to instead learn about their creative potential and be less destructive as children — and as adults.

But the greater story, Papadakis says, is simply about the sun.

"We're able to hold the sun in our hands for a moment. What are we going to do with it?" he asks. "This is just what one set of hands is going to do with it."