In the second painting, on the right, the sun was sinking into a bank of clouds. The air was full of haze and mist, which reduced the intensity of the sun, allowing me to look safely directly towards it.
Photographers call this time of day the golden hour, or magic hour. The sun is so low in the sky that its light travels almost parallel to the surface of the earth. Or to put it more another way, the rays of light are intersecting the sphere of the earth on a line of tangent, like a needle pushed into an orange peel at a very shallow angle. Sunlight travels through much more atmosphere at this angle than when it’s coming steeply down to earth at noontime.
Because of this greater distance traveled through the air, more bluish wavelengths are scattered out of each parcel of light. This makes the sky above a richer blue. The remaining sunlight is weaker in overall brightness, and more orange or red in color.
In the sky itself, there’s a noticeable progression of color from the blue above to the soft yellows and dull reds near the horizon.
If you face away from the sun, the sunlight shines on forms with a golden color, and the shadows are relatively bluish. In this painting from Dinotopia: First Flight (1999), I chose to light the scene with this warm golden hour light. The bottom half of the forms are beginning to be covered with a soft-edged cast shadow. Note that light hitting the top of the clouds behind the figures remains relatively white compared to the light that’s closer to the ground.
In fact whenever there are several layers of clouds at various altitudes, the higher clouds are always whiter because the light touching them has traveled through less atmosphere and therefore has had less blue light removed from it.
I painted these plein air sketches after the sun had set. But it’s still during that golden hour. If you face toward the spot where the sun set, there’s a bold red-orange glow in the sky. The ground below is dark and cool.
Here’s where a painter can beat the camera. Our eyes can see so much more color than the camera can see because they can accommodate to huge range of brilliance.
Gradually a grey layer rises up from the horizon opposite from the sun. This is the plane of the cast shadow of the earth itself.
When you’re painting golden hour colors from life, it helps to premix the colors before the moment arrives, anticipating the effect you want to capture. Then, as the light fades, you can work almost from memory as you look at the darkening colors on your palette. Or you can use a little fluorescent flashlight to illuminate your work area.
Eventually the warm colors drain out of the sky entirely. Sometimes a soft violet glow is all that remains. At this point of dusk, artificial lights begin to stand out, like these streetlights in the small town of Corofin in Ireland. From the doorway of a little pub behind me, the sound of accordion and fiddle was just starting up for the night.
During the first hour of morning, these color progressions are reversed.
I'm usually sleeping in, but the early riser is lucky enough to behold what Wordsworth called the “vision splendid” before the colors “fade into the light of common day.”
Tomorrow: Pizza Dreams