As electric lighting replaced flame-based light, new colors entered the nightscape. Fluorescent light has a yellow-green cast. Sodium vapor gives off a harshly monochromatic orange. Mercury vapor’s blue-green color drains the blood out of flesh tones. Other kinds of lights: metal halide, LED, neon, and arc lamps, each have their own color qualities. You’ve probably noticed the variety when flying over a city at night.
I painted this little oil sketch from observation while balancing on a hotel balcony in the predawn light in Anaheim, California. The technique is fairly crude—and a bit smudged from when I accidentally dropped it. What interested me was the contrast between the orange sodium vapor (foreground) and the green mercury vapor (middle ground).
I originally did this 8x10 inch oil sketch in 1995 as a concept for a Dinotopia theme park. Recently I reworked the central boat and reused the image in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara. It has three different regions of colored light: blue in the foreground, red-orange across the canal, and blue-green through the arch. The colors are arbitrary; I don't know what kind of lights Dinotopians are using.
Syd Mead, the “visual futurist” who helped design Blade Runner, is an inventive colorist who orchestrates colored light in many of his science fiction paintings. In this futuristic street scene, yellow, green, and blue light each occupy different spatial regions.
In this concept sketch by Mead, a mechanical creature stands above a circle of warm light, while a saturated, monochromatic cyan illumination infuses the rest of the scene. The effect is magical and otherworldly.
Japanese artist Teppei Sasakura also specializes in colored illumination, which he uses here to create a playful, exotic, kaleidoscopic effect.
Here are some tips if you want to experiment with colored light:
- Try painting a plaster cast, a figure, or a still life lit by two or three contrasting gel-covered lights. Try to shield the motif from all other light influences.
- Keep in mind that mixtures of colored light are different from paint mixtures. For example red plus green equals yellow.
- Try some urban night painting, using a portable LED light to illuminate your palette.
- Set your camera to daylight (rather than white balance) and photograph a color wheel under different street lights; then compare the digital photos side by side to see how the colors are skewed.
- Start a scrap file of magazine photos that show modern cityscapes at night.
Wikipedia/History of Streetlighting, Link.
Sky and Telescope article with a spectral output chart, Link.
Joe Maurath's gallery of vintage streetlighting, Link
More boulevard scenes by Edouard Cortes at ARC, link
More on Syd Mead, link.
For more on Teppei Sasakura, link.
Tomorrow: Art by Committee