Neon Glow-up: Adobe Stock’s bright new motion trend

Neon triangles.

Image source: Credit: Adobe Stock/wacomka

By RF Jurjevics

Posted on 11-11-2020

Neon is – and has always been – an experience. Intensely bright and always dramatic, it has been given the task of powering the fantastical (light sabers), the comical (beer signs), and pretty much all of the Las Vegas strip, Times Square, and Shinjuku, Japan. But now, neon has become more than just a set piece or a backdrop; thanks to the innovations of motion designers, it’s the whole show.

The neon of Neon Glow, one of Adobe Stock’s 2020 motion trends, goes beyond the classic tubes-and-bright-light (though there is a lot of that – and it’s amazing). Motion graphics artists have turned it into “light painted” text, rolling and dripping textures, put it into organic landscapes, and are experimenting with neon as a central character on its own. It can certainly hold its own – and has for over one hundred years.

Gas and glass

As identical as they look, digital neon and physical neon could not be more different. True neon is a gas, one that glows a bright red only when contained and is invisible to the eye otherwise. Sir William Ramsay of Scotland – a notable figure in the discovery of gases in the 1890s – was able to isolate neon and other similar elements by cranking the heat on liquified argon (another gas - with a purple glow in captivity) and observing what happened when it exceeded or dipped below its boiling point. In short: real-life alchemy.

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Image source: Adobe Stock/wacomka

Neon really hit the scene in the 1910s, and its widespread use in large, flashy signage lasted through the 60s. It was around then that cheaper and less finicky options became available, and designers and manufacturers began to move away from neon, which was pricey and cumbersome to use. But its magical quality and otherworldly brightness caught the eye of a new set of consumers: modern artists, who began to treat neon as a medium for their work.

One of the early adopters of neon-as-art was Dan Flavin, who, in 1963, started using glowing tubes exclusively to construct large scale, minimalist installations that transformed galleries into landscapes of light. The late Keith Sonnier, who died earlier this year, took neon in a different direction by twisting and turning glass tubes into wall-mounted abstract shapes, pop-art style. Sonnier also intermixed neon with other materials – mirrors; found objects; typographical frames – to create elaborate sculptural forms. And Greek artist Chryssa (who affixed only her first name to her work) made neon work both spare and chaotic, large and small, styled similarly to paintings (complete with canvas) or as oversized structures and installations.

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Image source: Adobe Stock/wacomka

The future is neon

In the 1980s, neon made the jump from the art gallery to the silver screen, most notably with sci-fi films like Tron, in which a computer hacker is transported into a digital world. Tron may not have done particularly well at the box office, but its neon flares and bright halos of light launched the first major VFX aesthetic. Neon became a visual cue for the early days of consumer computer technology, and an aesthetic bridge between the analog world and the digital.

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Image source: Adobe Stock/Media Whalestock

According to Dennis Radeke, Adobe Stock’s content development manager for video, that 80s retro-cool feel is a big part of what’s driving the Neon Glow motion trend forward.

“When you see this aquamarine or pinkish glow, the most standard neon colors, they are very in line with, say, Miami Vice,” Radeke says. “A lot of that is born out of not just the neon itself, but also the cultural aspects of it.” The appeal is rooted in the light itself, both for its inherent beauty, and its symbol of progress, the advance of technology, and a glittering - albeit slightly dangerous - new future.

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Image source: Adobe Stock/ADOGSTOCK

That new future - born in the 80s, maturing in the 90s - is getting a refresh. The 2010s brought us vaporwave, an internet-based, quasi-surreal art movement that combined low-res clip art with brightly colored interior or exterior scenes; the 2020s have upped the ante with a hyperreal take on neon in motion. Video games like Dreams and the action-heavy Cloudpunk are awash in neon, and, not unlike the art installations of the 60s and 70s, have built an increasingly immersive experience.

At the heart of this trend is the motion artist’s desire to capture visually striking aspects of reality to then experiment with and rework in digital spaces. Along with it comes the satisfaction of having rendered a cumbersome and expensive physical material like neon (see also: gold; crystal; chrome), which makes it more accessible as a design element.

“I think part of the appeal of being a motion designer is seeing if you can replicate things that are ‘real world’ and put them on screen,” says Theresa Rostek, senior production associate on the Motion Graphics Templates (MoGRTs) team. Makers and creators, she also notes, have rediscovered neon and are promoting it as a DIY medium; artists like Deepa Mann-Kler, who was a featured speaker at Adobe Max earlier this month, continue to use it in immersive works.

“Neon goes through ebbs and flows of popularity,” Rostek says. “I think when it comes back - which it has in the last few years, thanks to a resurgence of indie glass benders/neon sign makers doing small workshops - you’ll see that swing into digital work.” Art does imitate life, after all.

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