Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Golden Hour

Here are two plein-air paintings I made during of the last hour of the same day, as the sun was setting over the Hudson River. I painted them about 15 minutes apart.

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

13 comments:

Frank Gardner said...

Lots of good information here and in the posts about overcast light James. I have been trying to do more overcast paintings for some of the reasons you mentioned. It helps to see a few good examples sometimes. You have a special way of explaining things.
Are the top two paintings in this post at the Vanderbilt Mansion?

James Gurney said...

You're right, Frank, that's Vanderbilt Mansion, a National Historic Site in Hyde Park New York, and a favorite with landscape painters.

I love the incredible sundrenched paintings in your blog.

Frank Gardner said...

I thought so. It is a great place to paint.
Thanks for visiting my blog James.

Dean H. said...

Although I have wrestled for years with the lightings mentioned, You have given a wealth of info and demonstration that I find very helpful. Thanks!

Dean

Amanda said...

Mr. Gurney,
I just wanted to say "ThankYou!" so much for sharing your knowledge of lighting and landscape painting with your readers. I myself am just getting started with landscape painting, and your insight and examples have been so much more helpful than any book I've seen. Can't wait to see more of your posts!
-Amanda

Victor said...

Is the bluish nature of shadows due to that color being the compliment of the of the sky's orange-ness? I may be remembering this totally wrong, but I think I vaguely recall learning in a color class that cast shadows tend to be tinged with the compliment of the light being obscured.

Paolo Rivera said...

Thanks for all the great technical info. I'm always trying to learn the reasons behind what I'm seeing so I can use it later in subsequent paintings.

I also have a question: The sunrise (when I'm actually awake to see it) always looks "cooler" to me than the sunset, and I was wondering if you had come across an explanation for this. I used to think it might be due to the Doppler effect, but an optical engineer told me the human eye may not be able to perceive that small a shift in frequency.

James Gurney said...

Victor, I believe there are two reasons for the bluish color of evening shadows. One is that the sky above truly has more blue wavelengths, but also because of the reason you learned in the color class. I've heard it called "induced" color, or the complementary color that you perceive as a contrast to any strong adjacent hue.

And Paolo, I've also noticed that sunrise colors are a little different. They seem distinctly pinker and less orange. The best explanation I've heard for this one is that more dust and other pollutants is mixed in the air late in the day, and the dust gives a more orangey cast. Maybe someone else has another explantation.

The Art of Kim Kincaid said...

Thank you for this great information. You've clariied so many things that I've observed in nature, but not understood. Will you be doing moonlight anytime soon...pretty please??

Pappy said...

Mr Gurney,
I really enjoy your blog. I would love to see some tips about mixing colors on the palette.

Scott Altmann said...

Great stuff here...beautiful artwork and great information. Thank you!
Particularly nice to see a busy guy as yourself still keeping up with the plein air painting. Reminds me to keep up on my own.

badbot said...

the question about the difference between sunrise and sunset light is an interesting one. i'm wondering about that since a little time but i'm still in trouble...

i actually learn a lot from you, thanks!

keep up the good work! :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Sigh. Nothing to comment but yes, I love this sort of lighting in paintings and you described it beautifully.