Sunday, February 24, 2008

Multi-Colored Streetlights

Before electricity, there were basically two colors of light at night: blue-grey moonlight (or twilight), and orange lamplight. Below is a painting by the French boulevard painter Edouard Cortes (1882-1969), who specialized in Paris by lamplight.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Keep in mind that mixtures of colored light are different from paint mixtures. For example red plus green equals yellow.
  3. Try some urban night painting, using a portable LED light to illuminate your palette.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

5 comments:

Erik Bongers said...

There's something strange about the first painting.

Something I learned in optica class : our eyes tend to 'white-balance' themselves.
This means that during the 'twilight hour' grey clouds will appear blueish under yellowish street light.
This is because the yellow street light is our 'reference' neutral colour, and thus everything 'to the left' of this center will appear blue : including grey.
Sorry, this probably isn't clear enough, but I guess this is a topic by itself.
Rule of thumb is that a landscape background tends to have a complementary coloured cast in respect to the artificial lighting of the foreground.

But the first painting doesn't comply. The sky is still grey. It should be blue-green (compl. of orange).
Why is it still grey ?
The street lights in those days weren't bright enough to 'dominate' a scene, and also, daylight was still too bright at the given hour of the painting.
So the 'grey light' remained dominant and thus also the 'neutral center'.

The painting shows a special moment within the twilight-hour, that we hardly ever get to see nowadays with those strong dominating streetlights.

Hey, you can test this yourself on a grey evening. Look outside through the window. Once the grey sky appears blue, turn of the lights in the room (hopefully there's not too much street light) and you will see the clouds turn grey again after a dozen seconds.
Put on the light again, look a bit around the room first to adjust and the grey clouds turns to blue again.

I just love the twilight hour !

Erik Bongers said...

Soory to be spamming with even a second post after such a long one, but I got scared after the first post.
I'm slightly colour-blind, so maybe I got the first painting all wrong !
I checked with the color picker tool in Photoshop.
Phewww...I was right : street light is orange, very red-ish orange actually.
And the background is indeed grey BUT...(and reason for this second post) :

It DOES have a blue-green cast, but only so slightly that it's hardly noticable (for me at least).

James Gurney said...

Great points, Erik. That Cortes really is grey, and a bit atypical for him, maybe because he was trying to evoke rainy weather. You're absolutely right about the dimness of real lamplight and the white balance of the eye. The same grey sky would look red violet the moment you leave a room lit by fluorescent.

In fact you anticipated a future post that I was planning about my theory for the intense "Maxfield Parrish blue." It's the color you see outdoors at dusk for about two minutes after you leave a room lit by incandescent light. Both Parrish and Cortes grew up in the lamplight era and conveyed a nostalgia for it into the electric age.

Michael Chesley Johnson, PSA, PSNM said...

Illumination other than sunlight is a fascinating topic. Of special interest to me is night painting; I just finished writing an article for The Artist's Magazine on painting the nocturne en plein air. (It'll be out in October, I think.)

One key element you mention that I had forgotten is that mixing light is different from mixing pigment. (Mixing pigment color is a subtractive process; mixing light color is additive.) It's not such an issue when you're painting under moonlight and that's your only source of illumination, but it can be critical when you have different types of illumination shining on an object, as you mention. This is where painting from life helps; you'll observe that a red light and a green light will make yellow rather than a (theoretically) neutral grey.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Michael,
I can't wait to read your article in Artist's Magazine.

Everyone should also check out the blog of Craig Stephens, who just posted a new streetlight nocturne at craigstephens.blogspot.com/