Learning the art
Neon lighting is made with glass tubes that hold neon gas. An electrical charge is sent into the gas to create the light and color.
Neon sculptors bend the glass tubes to form their designs. This takes a lot of skill. If the artist doesn't bend the tube just right, the tube might crack, or the design might be ruined.
Artists not only need to learn to work with glass tubing, but they also need to learn about electricity and engineering.
For years, the art of neon bending was passed on from grandparents to parents to kids. This was much like the way craftspeople learned in the Middle Ages. Young benders apprenticed, or learned with, experienced benders. It took years to learn.
Bending the glass
To create a neon sculpture, the artist first draws a design. He or she then heats up glass tubing with a type of blowtorch.
When it gets hot enough, the glass begins to turn to liquid. The artist blows through a hose that is connected to the glass tube. The air from the hose forces the soft, hot glass to bend according to the pattern. This is very tricky.
One sculpture might need several different sizes and shapes of tubing.
Creating the sculpture
Once the artist forms the pieces of tubing, huge amounts of electricity are sent into each tube. This makes the inside of the tube so hot that any impurities turn to gas.
Then the gaseous impurities are sucked out of the tube. If left inside the tube, they would change the coloring or ruin the glass.
The artist lets the tube cool, puts in a small amount of neon or argon gas and seals it off with a hand torch.
Finally, the artist joins the tubes to make the design. The back of the tubes may be painted black so the light pops out.
Creating the rainbow
When neon gas is charged with electricity, it glows with a red/orange color. Red/orange is the most common color in signs. Artists also use argon, another gas. Argon glows sky blue when charged.
Artists produce colors in several ways. If they want reddish-orange or sky blue, they leave the glass tubing clear. But if they want different colors, they can coat the insides of the tubes with a special powder. Each powdery coating can make different colors, depending on which gas is added to the tube.
Artists can also get color by buying tubes made of colored glass. This is especially beautiful, with rich, deep colors. However, it is a lot more expensive, and colored glass is harder to work with. Colored glass is usually made in Europe.