The inside of a prism reflects a drawing of multicolored wavy lines.

Have you ever seen a rainbow? Maybe you’ve noticed one refracted through a glass prism or while playing in a sprinkler on a sunny day. This project will give you the power to make your own rainbow!

Time: 45–60 minutes 

Skill Level: Intermediate

Topic: Optical Experiments


Olafur Eliasson; 2005; Acrylic glass, HMI spotlight, motor, tripod; dimensions variable; ring: 60 cm diam.; Gift of Janine and J. Tomilson Hill in honor of Ned Rifkin’s tenure as Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (2002-2005), 2005

Look at this photograph. You’ll notice a darkened, mostly empty room.

A tripod stand with a large spotlight is placed toward the center of the room. 

Look closely at the beacon of light projecting across the room. What do you see? 

When light travels between different materials it changes (refraction) or bounces (reflection). Reflection and refraction can create interesting visuals such as rainbows. This artwork is called Round Rainbow. It is an installation work made by the artist Olafur Eliasson. An installation is an artwork with many different parts that are set up in a space such as the room pictured here. All artists work with light, but Eliasson takes this even farther by making art out of light itself!

Watch this video. What did you observe while watching the artwork? Describe the objects, shapes, and colors.

In the video you probably noticed the circular ring suspended from the ceiling. As the ring  moves, light bounces off of it and creates different white reflections. At the same time, light passing through the ring refracts, creating a rainbow spectrum. A rainbow spectrum is the multicolored light rays (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet) that occur when light shines through a prism. Occasionally, parts of the artwork block the light and create shadows on the wall.

Try this. Grab two sheets of white paper, a smooth clear drinking glass, and scissors. Fill your glass with water and place it on top of one of the pieces of paper in direct sunlight. Cut a small rectangular frame out of the middle of the other sheet of paper. Set the frame on the rim of the glass. Play around with the placement of your paper until you find a rainbow! 

Look closely. What do you see? What’s happening? Why do you think there is a rainbow?

Left image: A smooth clear drinking glass filled with water with a small rectangular frame on top. Right image: A round metal disk hanging from the ceiling of a room. A spotlight is projected on the disk. The light creates reflections and refractions, including rainbows.

Olafur Eliasson, Round Rainbow, 2005. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Gift of Janine and J. Tomilson Hill in honor of Ned Rifkin’s tenure as Director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (2002–2005), 2005.

Artist Olafur Eliasson (b. Copenhagen, 1967) often finds inspiration in the elements of the world around us, like light, color, and weather. Eliasson is Icelandic and Danish, having grown up in both countries, and he studied art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Shortly after graduating, he moved to Berlin, Germany and founded his own studio. A studio is a place where artists work; almost 80 people work at Studio Olafur Eliasson! Eliasson is best known for his installation works and sculptures. One of Eliasson’s most popular installations was The Weather Project, which created the feeling of the sun indoors at a museum in London called the Tate Modern.

Eliasson also made another artwork featuring light in the Hirshhorn collection called Your Oceanic Feeling. This sculpture is on view in the Hirshhorn lobby! It’s another kind of round rainbow, shaped like a disco ball with a hole in the middle. The hole has a lightbulb inside of it that projects the colors of the glass in the artwork onto the lobby ceiling.


For this project, we take inspiration from Eliasson’s experimentation with light and metal to create reflections in Round Rainbow. Create your own foil kaleidoscope that experiments with  reflections and patterns!

  1. Gather materials. You’ll need: 
    • A cardboard tube (toilet paper rolls work well) 
    • Three strips of aluminum foil and three strips of thick white paper (all cut to the same length as your cardboard tube, and 1 ¼ inches wide to fit within the diameter of the cardboard tube)
    • Tape
    • A white paper circle at least 3 inches in diameter 
    • A pipe cleaner cut in half
    • Markers
    • Decorative materials (paint, markers, pens, stickers, etc.) for the outside of your kaleidoscope tube


      An assortment of tape, foil and paper strips, a cardboard roll, a short pipe cleaner, markers and a white paper circle

      Note: There is an invitation at the end of this project to experiment with prisms with different numbers of sides. If interested, you may wish to precut one or two extra strips of paper and foil.

  2. Decorate your tube. Use decorative materials to liven up the outside of your kaleidoscope tube. We decorated our tube with purple and blue acrylic paint.

    Set your tube aside to dry while you construct the inner workings of your kaleidoscope in steps 3-5.A cardboard palette with purple and blue paint, a paintbrush, and a cardboard tube.
  3. Tape your strips of paper and foil together into a triangular prism and fit them inside your cardboard tube. A triangular prism is a three-dimensional shape with three sides that form two triangles on each end (almost like a triangular cardboard tube; see the image below on the right). Glue or tape your aluminum foil strips to your thick white paper strips. Then line up the strips and put tape between the edges. Fold the pieces into a triangle and tape the last two edges together. Check your triangular prism with a blank cardboard tube to make sure it fits inside.
    Left image: Three strips of paper and aluminum foil are lined up and taped together. Beside them is a roll of tape. Right image: The strips are taped together in the shape of a triangular prism. One hand holds a cardboard tube while another fits the prism inside.
  4. Poke a hole in the middle of your paper circle. Use the end of your pipe cleaner to poke a large hope in the middle of your paper circle.
    A hand holding a white paper circle and another hand poking a pipe cleaner into the middle of the circle
    Note: Younger artists will need supervision for this step to prevent poking their skin
  5. Design your circle. Use your mark-making materials to draw on your circle. You might try including multiple designs in different regions of your circle, like pieces of a pie. We chose to create designs with lines, hearts, and polka-dots.
    A white paper circle with 4 different multicolored designs: hearts, zig zag lines, polka-dots, and wavy lines.
  6. Tape your pipe cleaner to your tube. The pipe cleaner will extend past the tube so you can attach your circle to it. Note: Make sure your tube is completely dry before attaching the pipe cleaner!
    A purple and blue cardboard tube with a light blue pipe cleaner taped on top. One side of the pipe cleaner extends past the edge of the cardboard tube.
  7. Attach your circle to the pipe cleaner. Make sure your design is facing the tube so you can see it.
    One hand holding a cardboard tube and another attaching the paper circle to the extended end of the pipe cleaner.
  8. Spin your design! Look through your paper tube to see what your kaleidoscope looks like!
    A kaleidoscope reflecting zig zag lines inside its triangular prism.

Want to do more? Try out prisms with different numbers of sides. Make another kaleidoscope with a four-sided rectangular prism (if the prism doesn’t fit inside your tube you can just use the prism as your kaleidoscope). 

Experiment with light. What happens if you use your kaleidoscope in a dark room and shine a flashlight through?

We want to see your creations! Share on social media @hirshhorn with #HirshhornInsideOut.