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Thursday, September 24, 2015


Impression Sunrise, 1873, Claude Monet
I just did a little quick and dirty survey of landscape paintings to be found on the Internet. Fully one-forth of them featured the sun either rising or setting (not that it makes much difference). One can take that for what its worth, but it would seem, more than any other single quality in landscape painting, the moments of dawn and dusk hold a extraordinary attraction for both artists and (one would have to assume) buyers. The key word in that statement is "moments." The rest has simply to do with romantic auras and spectacular natural light shows. No artist can set up canvas and easel outside, then capture a good sunset/sunrise in the mere moments of visual perfection allotted by nature. The earth revolves, the light and colors change every second. Here even the instantaneous qualities of photography are not much help in that this type of content is probably one of the most difficult to capture through a lens. Virtually every sunset I've ever shot comes bleached out to a colorless mass (automatic camera settings are probably to blame for much of that). In any case, the artist is thus forced to memorize what he or she observes then try to recapture that fleeting solar glimpse hours or days later in a studio setting. Almost invariably this leads to exaggeration of light and color. We remember the effect of the rising or setting sun rather than the actual phenomena. In essence, sunsets/sunrises are beautiful, but they're not that beautiful.
The Fighting Temeraire Towed to Her Final Berth, 1839, J.M.W. Turner.
They almost appear to be separate paintings by the same artist.
The best solution to this problem is to study the old masters. But even that is only helpful if you can actually go to a museum and ponder them firsthand. One of the most famous sunrise painting ever painted is Claude Monet's Impression Sunrise (top) dating from 1873. All three images are of the same painting yet there is absolutely no consistency in their color. Which one is correct? Probably none of them. We see the same problem in J.M.W. Turner's The Fighting Temeraire Towed to Her Final Berth (above), from 1839. In both cases I could show you at least that many more examples with inaccurately reproduced color. Thus it comes down to the artist showing restraint as to light and color (totally inseparable) and perhaps even more important, avoiding formulas. In terms of color, there is no formula. Every sunrise/sunset is too distinctly different to apply a formula. As for self-restraint, artists are notoriously lacking in that trait. Just look below to see what I mean.

Trite and truly atrocious.
Even for artists old enough to "know better," there's something about painting a sunrise/sunset that brings out their worst tendencies as to both color and content. A sunset is, after all, merely a background. At their very best, such a background can sometimes stand on its own. Usually, they can't. They need some type of foreground content to "carry" the paintings, augment the composition, and provide a center of interest beyond the "ho-hum" sun. And its here the artist often gets into trouble. First of all, the overwhelming majority of sunrise/sunset paintings involve aqueous reflections, which, in theory, doubles the impact of the sunset. In fact, water does just the opposite, it usually causes the work to be formulaic, way too much like every other sunrise/sunset ever painted (even Turner's and Monet's). Beyond that, the artist is often prone to choosing center of interest content that is so trite as to invite eye-rolling ridicule on the part of even the most unknowing critic. The swans and the lovebirds (above) seem almost humorous, to which could be added, palm trees, lighthouses, sailboats, flamingos, boat docks, and crashing waves.

Grand Canyon Desert View Sunrise, Chuck Underwood
Ideally, the atmospherics of the sunrise/sunset itself should "carry" the painting. Chuck Underwood's Grand Canyon Desert View Sunrise (above) has no extraneous content. It barely has a Grand Canyon. Instead, the artist paints a gorgeous sunrise then displays the effect that sunrise has upon the rugged desert environment before it. Only a few scrub trees and brush interrupt this panoply of carefully controlled light and color. The emphasis is on textures and subtle color contrasts, avoiding much of the most commonly exaggerated color associated with the sunrise--red. Though the colors are much more intense, we see a similar reliance upon the sunset itself as oppose to other content in Frederick Edwin Church's Twilight in the Wilderness (below) from 1860. The colors, the atmospheric effects, and the subtle reflection in the water are all eye-popping but the reds are cooled by the blues and both are subdued by the vast areas of darkness both above and below the horizon.

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Frederick Edwin Church
Abstract Sunset Sky, Jeana Childress 
It's interesting to compare Church's wilderness sunset to that of the Australian artist, Graham Gercken (below), who seems to have been influenced by Church (as seen in his handling of the cloud reflections) but with a more expressive use of color and brushwork. I love an artist unafraid to use blues in a sunset/sunrise context. Doing so tends to hint at what has been, what is, and what is to come as one "reads" the color from top to bottom. Some might be surprised to find that sunrise/sunset painting also extends into the abstract realm, as seen in the work of Jeana Childress and her Abstract Sunset Sky (left). Only the darkening of the sky toward the bottom suggests the existence of any earthly presence.

Graham Gercken--minimal content, maximum atmospherics
without the slightest hint of exaggeration.
Lindsey Kustus' San Francisco
Perhaps the most intriguing sunrise/sunset paintings are those having a setting along Robert Frost's "road less traveled," specifically those involving urban and rural landscapes. The work of San Francisco artist Lindsey Kustus (right) works in much the same vein as the Grand Canyon landscape of Chuck Underwood mentioned earlier in that it relies upon the sunrise only for atmospherics while allowing the neighborhoods hilly streets of her city to dominate the scene. It's San Francisco seen only incidentally at the most beautiful time of day. About as far from San Francisco as geographically possible, one of my own paintings, Winter Dawn (below) from 1996, captures the "up and at'em" work ethic of the southeastern Ohio farm in the dead of winter where, despite the "lovely" overnight deposit of frigid beauty, the morning chores persist. I've gone on at length as to what to do and not to do in painting such scenes. By no means saving the best for last, it's only fair that I bring you a couple of my own paintings along this line. Unlike Winter Dawn, with it's cold blues, Chevy Beach (bottom) is rife with red, but not in the subtle handling of the setting sun, the sky being a little more colorful than this rather elderly slide image indicates, but nonetheless serves only to "color" the beach and the car with its warm evening light. That's it; I'll close now; I'm hungry; and the sun is setting.

Copyright Jim Lane
Winter Dawn, 1996, Jim Lane
Copyright, Jim Lane
Chevy Beach, Jim Lane


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