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Make waves to swim in : Painting in Virtual Reality

Project Concept:

This project aims to bring the experience of being lost in a painting from it’s inception to wandering around, on, below and besides the painting. Taking advantage of the field of vision possible in virtual reality to be surrounded entirely and immersed. The viewer is given agency through interaction, by being able to grab and throw strokes of paint, thus creating an original collage. This movement is enhanced by being able to move around the painting which itself appears to be moving.The viewer feels in collaboration with the artist and involved in the making of the work.

Ever since I first saw Claude Monet’s Water Lilies in the Musée de l'Orangerie I have aspired to make a work that provides full immersion in a painting. The resources to cover the eight panels, each two meters high and spanning 91 meters in length, have not been available to me thus far.

There is a peace to be obtained from contemplation a work of this scale. One can enjoy being surrounded by the artist’s world or focus on a particularly inspiring glimpse of genius. As a painter I have longed to bring this scale to my abstract works realising that this would undoubtedly provide a new and exciting dimension to them.

Virtual reality offers a thrilling way to encounter art in this way for viewers. Being able to move freely in these works gives the viewer an insight of the dancing gestures that making the paintings embodies. The Musée de l'Orangerie does offer a web VR view of the room of paintings and this was not as satisfying as what I hope I have created in this piece so far.

Inside the making of a painting

Use of video and painting on glass Painting documentaries, so easily available now on the internet, have for some time been a way of being mentored by artists I have long admired.

Watching two documentaries about Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, two moments caught my eye.

Both artists are filmed painting on glass as a way of helping the viewers of their work see a new dimension, as if they themselves were the canvas.

Upon further researching the work of a contemporary artist I admire, Matthew Stone, I learnt that he too was painting on glass as part of his practise. I wanted to bring these references in to this work. They offer viewers a way of understanding a painter’s practice, process and use of the paint as form. In VR, the viewer can interact even more deliberately in this performative aspect of making a painting, from a new perspective.

The possibilities of paint are never-ending. Frank Bowling 2015

I have also been inspired by Henri Mattisse who in the last decade of his life made large, vivid collages with his assistants. Once again making work at this scale really appeals to me, and the idea of collaboration, which has such a strong tradition in the studio, was particularly appealing. The ability to grab and throw strokes of paintings had a strong appeal, giving the viewer agency. In grabbing these large strokes of paint and throwing them, the viewer, now artists, wields a new power becoming a viewer/artist and working in collaboration with a painter. In this first iteration I have chosen to make 3D objects, wrapped in paintings the sculptural objects that can be moved to create a painting sculpture. Once again there is an affordance that virtual reality provides which could not be given elsewhere.

In the first iteration, the use of the controllers was prone to glitches as experienced in the first user testing.

I considered using an existing tool to immerse the viewer in painting, the Tilt Brush. This tool is best for drawing and does not afford the mark making in the same organic, fluid qualities of painting.

VR Art Therapy and the Treatment of Depression

Artworks in hospitals have been shown to be palliative.With this work, patients could indulge in an immersive work that takes them to another world, one far removed from their current incapacity. Further messy painting is particularly difficult in this environment and thus an artwork like this could be of particular interest. Already Virtual Reality is being used in this medical context as shown by UCL studies among many others. This work’s strength maybe in the avoidance of the use of avatars, potentially offering an escape but with the empowering use of agency.


The work was built using Unity and tested on the Oculus Rift headset and controller system. I was pleased with the initial result, especially with viewers initial responses. The work met the initial goals of surrounding a viewer and allowing for basic interaction with the painting and walking around it. Aesthetically it works. There are immediate changes I am considering for example a spherical room rather than a cube. Below are further developments.

Further Developments

Sophisticated audio

The power of this piece would be vastly strengthened by the use of responsive sounds, specifically, I would be interested in using natural sounds, a tree falling, the collapse of a glacier and the violence of a storm.

Painterly Effects

In addition to the collage functionality, it would be interesting to test out the use of the controllers to ‘grab’ strokes of colour and them stretch and make them malleable. In addition it would be special to give these strokes additional qualities, for example dancing, fluid movements or melting qualities. Animating parts of these paintings would give an ephemeral quality to the works, allowing the viewers of these pieces to be suspended in a liminal space. In addition it would be special is interaction with the walls for example left a smear and the controller seemed to have paint dripping from it, or stretching to follow it.

Painting on glass developments

It would also be interesting to improve on the still images of paint strokes to be manipulated by the controllers, for example by allowing certain interactions to play a video which ‘paints a stroke’ so that as the viewer ‘walks’ around the space they see new strokes ‘erupting’. This interaction could add an additional level of immersion, in that a responsive and delightfully surprising environment would keep one engaged for a longer time.

Walking through the painting as it is being developed. I am keen to develop this work further by allowing the viewer/artist to walk through a painting, including walking through video strokes as they emerge and be able to see it from different perspectives.


Claude Monet Water Lilies Orangerie

Accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

Jackson Pollock 51- Painting on Glass

Accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

Pablo Picasso -Painting on Glass

Accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

Matthew Stone

Accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

Painting from Within - Developing and Evaluating a Manual-based Art therapy for Patients with Depression

Zanier ER, Zoerle T, Di Lernia D, Riva G. Virtual Reality for Traumatic Brain Injury. Front Neurol. 2018;9:345. Published 2018 May 16. doi:10.3389/fneur.2018.00345 Accessed 15 Jan. 2020.

Visualizing Virtual Reality Imagery through Digital Holography

I Pioaru - 2017 International Conference on Cyberworlds (CW), 2017

Accessed 05 Jan. 2020.

Tilt Brush painting: Chronotopic adventures in a physical-virtual threshold.

Chittenden, Tara. "Tilt Brush painting: Chronotopic adventures in a physical-virtual threshold." Journal of Contemporary Painting, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, p. 381+. Gale Academic Onefile, Accessed 15 Jan. 2020.

Technology Used

Oculus Rift Headset

Unity version 2019.2.5f1


painting, virtual reality, art, VR art, immersive art, new media

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