Leo Villareal

Teaching Page

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Installation view of Leo Villareal at the San Jose Museum of Art. Artwork shown: Amanecer, 2010. LEDs, diffusion material, custom software, and electrical hardware, 7 x 20 feet x 15 inches. Courtesy of Galería López-Mario Sequeira, Madrid. Photo courtesy of San Jose Museum of Art.

Although Leo Villareal is no longer on view at MMoCA, this teaching page is valuable as an ongoing classroom resource. Here, you can find information on the artthe artistkey ideasdiscussion questions, and additional resources. You can also download a pdf of this teaching page and a large image of Amanecer.


Amanecer is a twenty-foot wide light installation that slowly changes hues, emitting what appear to be moving patterns across its flat, translucent surface. Zones of color gradually flow into each other in unpredictable sequences that emerge, grow, and melt away like the shades of a dawning sky or the swirling Northern Lights. Taking time to pause and watch its undulating motion may be rewarded by such sensations as spaciousness, peacefulness, or harmony and an awareness of ways that light and form interact with spatial qualities of the environment. However, trying to anticipate the light patterns is futile.

Amanecer was created by the placement of rows and rows of LED lights behind an acrylic sheet. Artist Leo Villareal substitutes electronic lights and computer code for paint and canvas, making light sculptures and architectural site-specific installations. Viewers experience the manifestation of the “artist’s hand” by viewing abstract light patterns that result from the computer instructions he writes. The light bulbs and hardware that the artist uses are materials often used in everyday life—in homes, commercial signs, advertising, and architectural lighting.

Amanecer exemplifies Villareal’s interest in and inspiration from the color and light explorations of Impressionists such as Claude Monet, as well as twentieth-century color field paintings of Mark Rothko and the works of James Turrell, a leader of the Light and Space movement. He began by using strobe lights and electric circuitry, incandescent lights and computers, and then turned to using light emitting diodes, LEDs.

Villareal considers his process of creating light sequences similar to the layering of patterns in music composition. He is interested in synesthesia, or the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body. He sometimes wonders what his pieces “might sound like,” but has no intention to add music to his work.


Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1967 and raised in El Paso/Juarez, Leo Villareal attended boarding school in Rhode Island. Due to a developing interest in theater he applied to Yale University to study stage design, where he enjoyed using strobe lights and stark bulbs to create sets and environments for student productions. He pursued graduate studies at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, experimenting with virtual reality and interactive television. From 1994 to 1997 he worked on cutting-edge virtual reality projects at Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Interval Research Corporation. He began attending Burning Man, for which he created his first light work. In 2000, Villareal began to work with LEDs because of their capability for being precisely controlled and to be manipulated to create up to sixteen million different colors that could “flow” and fluctuate in intensity.


  • computer code and contemporary lighting technology as fine art media
  • underlying rules and structure for abstract, unpredictable imagery
  • chance sequences that thwart viewer inclination to locate patterns
  • phenomenological effects created by using digital technology


  1. The word amanecer [a.ma.ne.sayr] is Spanish for ‘to dawn’ or ‘to awaken.’ In what ways does this work of art suggest this time of day?
  2. What other art forms could simulate the early morning hours? If you were to use music or dance or poetry, what would you include to convey an experience of the dawn?
  3. Villareal is interested in how something that is experienced visually can help people be more aware of how they see and interpret what they see. How does viewing Amanecer make you more aware of “seeing” and “interpreting?”


On the Artist:

Leo Villareal's website
Video of Leo Villareal at the San Jose Museum of Art
National Gallery of Art
Exhibition Catalogue


How Light Emitting Diodes Work
Edison Tech Center