Sunday, September 28, 2014

Night Sketching in Alleys

Night sketching in alleys opens up new worlds of light and color.

Streetlights come in a variety of color casts: the yellow of sodium vapor, the green of mercury vapor, the red of neon, and the blue-white of metal halide. Our eyes can see variations in these light colors that elude the camera.

This casein sketch is about the size of a baseball card. In the semi-darkness, it's difficult to distinguish subtle color differences on the palette, so I take a basic palette of about seven colors.

I take a variety of compact LED lamps with me in order to match the illumination on my sketchbook with the levels and colors in the scene. Clockwise from upper left is a single head book light, a Mighty Bright "Hammerhead" light, and a Petzl Headlamp (customized with a nylon diffuser and a 1/4" 20 nut held on with Sugru as a tripod attachment point). I also sometimes use an Artist's Road Night-Light Cap.

The lights are clipped to my newest sketchbook, titled "Hitting the Whiskers," following my custom of lifting a line from the first page of the sketchbook.

A garbage collector's shirt or uniform is helpful, too, because you want night vehicles to see you. You can pick up these uniforms used at a uniform store. Or you can get a reflective safety vest online.
Previously: Multi-Colored Streetlights
Vintage Streetlight Collection
More light colors in my book Color and Light


jeff jordan said...

NICE lettering on the new sketchbook! I don't see myself doing any outdoor painting at night, but wondering--is there an adjustment period with your eyes, between trying to decipher what's happening with what you're attempting to paint, and then actually putting it down in the book?

Hope that makes sense.........

Annie said...

Wow! Another new horizon, adventure and challenge!
Could you comment on light and yellow? I did a painting one night by kerosene light and the next day in daylight it looked like it had been dipped in gold. I read somewhere that Van Gogh's painting of his room is rich in yellow for the same reason. Even a normal light bulb seems to "soak up" yellow so I'm apt to slather it on in order to see it. I've learned to compensate by adding a flourescent light. I'd love to know if it's true about Van Gogh!

James Gurney said...

Annie, the basic rule of thumb is to try to match the color of the light shining on your painting with the color of light illuminating the scene. Not always easy, night illumination is often very weird--sodium lights have really only one wavelength. If you don't feel sure you can meaningfully distinguish colors, just switch to monochromatic painting.

Jeff, the same principle applies to your question. If the brightness levels are more or less consistent between the work and the subject, there shouldn't be an adjustment time.

Glenn Tait said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glenn Tait said...

I've been coming across various reviews and comments on the latest Moleskine watercolour journals and how the paper is very different with the front and back of the leaf having two types of finishes/textures. Many people don't seem happy with the changes. These new journals are easy to spot as they have a redesigned label.

Have you used the new ones yet?

ps. There is quite an in-depth review with comparisons and examples here:

James Gurney said...

Hi, Glenn,
Thanks for the info. I'll experiment with it. I'm still using Moleskine watercolor books, but my newest one is a Pentalic, and I love it. Much better paper!

Glenn Tait said...

I presently am using a Moleskeine (old model) and have had my eye on the Pentalic as well but am trying out a Strathmore Visual Journal (Watercolor, 140 lb, 5.5" x 8", 22 sheets) this week. I like the portrait format and it is about 1/3 the cost of the Moleskine - plus a heavier weight. The Visual Journal also comes in a 90lb version/34 sheets.

Carlos said...

Hi James. I'm doing mostly comic book drawing at the time and some watercolor as well. I'm looking for a good set of light bulbs for my drawing board. I've read somewhere about Chromalux Light Bulbs but haven't found anything like that in my area. Can you recommend any brand/ model? Thanks, Carlos.

James Gurney said...

Carlos, I haven't replaced my studio fluorescents in a while, so I'm not up on current brands, but just ask for a color balanced fluorescent and be sure to at as high as possible Color Rendering Index. CRI. You might also compare to LEDs which are getting pretty good.

Unknown said...

Hello James,

You've inspired me to try some night time painting. :)

I am wondering about doing the lightest areas in watercolor first and then switching to gouache for the darkest, most opaque areas. My reasons for using the watercolor are familiarity and it may work well with the lights at night.

I imagine I'm not the first to have tried this, so I'm wondering whether or not it works well. What is your experience?

James Gurney said...

Ted, yes, I think that could work. Gouache is always nice when you want to control the value, and that would be especially valuable for the darks in a night scene. I also sometimes use transparent paint for the foreground textures where I want more accidental variation, and opaques for the distance, where I want flatter colors where I can really control the value.