Sunrise… Sunset…

There’s a song from Fiddler on the Roof that speaks of sunrises and sunsets and how swiftly flow the days.  It’s a beautiful song, a thoughtful one, and one that I’ve been singing as I’ve painted.

Recently I posted a sunrise painting that I completed as part of a lesson series at The Virtual Instructor, and today I’m sharing another. This painting is from my 31-day index card landscape project:

Once again I’ve found it all but impossible to get a good photo of this little 3 x 5 landscape painting, I think it’s probably my favorite so far, primarily because I was able to show the sun on the horizon. But is this really a sunrise? Or is it a sunset?

That same question came up during our “live lesson” series at The Virtual Instructor. We were, indeed, painting a sunrise — the instructor had taken the reference photo during an early morning run along the beach in North Carolina — but during the painting process several times students referred to it as a sunset.

Are there differences between a sunrise and a sunset — beyond the obvious, that is?

For what it’s worth, the painting I used as my inspiration for this landscape scene is one of several by George Inness with the title Sunrise.  Here is his 1887 painting:

Each day before I paint my 3 x 5 landscape, I spend a little time looking at the “inspiration” painting, sketching out the basic lines of the composition, and noting the colors of the palette, as well as considering the thoughts and feelings the painting evokes. As always, I simplified my version of the painting, omitting entirely the lone figure near the center of the page.

As I looked at the painting, I wrote words and phrases about weariness, end of the day, going home. To me, this seemed like an evening sunset, not the first light of dawn.

I didn’t care for the tired feelings I had when looking at the painting. Even though I love Inness and his art, I don’t want to paint quite like he did. I don’t want dull colors that feel heavy and sad. I like subtle colors, yes, but I want a lighter touch about my palette.

So, I used more cool blue in my sky — a strong complement to the brilliant orange sun. I tried to add a bit of mist spreading out over the distant hills, and I hoped to express a sense of promise. A new day is beginning. What might it hold?

Of course, I was curious. Are there notable differences between a sunrise and a sunset? The answer is yes and no, and let’s throw in a maybe or two. The first site I browsed suggested that where art is concerned, there are distinct differences — usually — in how sunrises and sunsets are painted.

  • Sunrises tend to be lighter in color
  • Sunrises tend to be somewhat cooler
  • Sunrises tend to show more atmospheric effect
  • Sunrises tend to have bluer skies
  • Sunset colors are usually deeper and more dramatic
  • Sunset colors are usually warmer — reds, oranges, yellows

There were a few “scientific” reasons given. First, the air is usually warmer at sunset than at sunrise, and this affects how we see colors. Second, the air contains more pollutants at sunset because they have accumulated in the air througout the day. Third, our own physical state is usually different at sunrise, and this does, in fact, change our perceptions.

But then as I browsed more, I found more sites saying that there simply is no real difference between sunrise and sunset — as far as the amount of light or the differences in colors are concerned. And, true enough, we can think of little weather lore sayings, such as, “Red sky at night is a sailor’s delight, while a red sky at morning means sailors take warning.” So, sure enough the skies can be warm at night and warm at dawn, and does it really make a difference?

Technically, there is a real answer to the question. Take a look at this photograph:

Are you seeing the sun rise? Or is this a setting sun? I’ll let you ponder that for a moment before I give the answer. The trick, according to The Natural Navigator is to stop looking at the sun and look instead at the landscape.

Film producers have sometimes gotten “caught in mistakes” by trying to play a sunrise or sunset in reverse — and have quickly found out that it doesn’t work. Unless you’re on the equator, that is. The sun, you see, moves left to right as it rises (in the Northern hemisphere) and it also moves left to right as it sets. So were you to play it in reverse motion, you’d have it moving in the wrong direction.

From here, the scientific answer gets a bit muddled for me, but in this photo, you’re seeing a sunset. I was wrong. I thought it was a sunrise. How about you? Looking at the landscape, you’ll notice that the water has settled toward the left, which indicates the direction south. You can also use wind effects to see how the trees are being swept from left to right, indicating thereby that the southwest is on the left of this photo. The sun, therefore, is in the western sky, and can only be setting. I guess it all makes sense, at least to those who are natural navigators and understand things like wind effects and the natural movement of water.

These are interesting things to think about, for sure. How important they’ll be in my landscape painting… well, that remains to be seen. But I’ll definitely be looking more closely at “sunrise” and “sunset” paintings now to see how accurate the artists’ depictions are.



  1. His painting highlights two key areas that you did not capture. This could have been by choice of course but, if so, it reduced my immediate interest.

    His sky does have the overall darkness that you wanted to avoid however, within that darkness are very clear definitions between the night sky; cloud layers and the sun. – By lightening the dark sky tones, you lost much of that definition.

    Both his trees are a major aspect of the painting because they “lead” the observer to the setting (?) sun. The furthest tree is very nicely positioned in front of the sun thereby creating a very sharp contrast. – You not only lost a size perspective with the trees (furthest tree has trunk and limb way too thick) but, by increasing the size of the sun, you again traded off contrasts.

    If you look at the original painting, your attention is likely directed from the nearest tree, diagonally across the painting to the furthest tree, and specifically to the sun in the “elbow joint” of the right branch and trunk. Your “furthest tree” is much larger in overall size, and in its components, therefore detracting from that guide into the painting.

    So … did you do anything wrong? That depends! If you were happy that you expressed your own personality in your painting, and the “free spirit” within you was captured … then no. Well done.

    My creative experiences, while driven by personal satisfaction, are so enhanced when somebody other than myself clearly related to the product of my creativity. i.e. While fulfilling your own needs can be rewarding, the proverbial “icing on the cake” is surely when other people can express excitement over your work?

    If you will excuse the analogy — sexual pleasure from masterbating can be rewarding, but it is likely to be much more rewarding with a partner! That applies to all creative endeavours!

    Creating simply to please others is a “business”. Create simply to please yourself is isolationist. There is a “sweet spot” somewhere between those two philosophies! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I’ve pointed out several times in my posts, I’m not attempting to “copy” the paintings, merely to use them as inspiration. I was pleased with my painting, so that makes it successful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have never suggested you copy anybody’s work, but you should be aware that there is so much more to painting than splashing around on a canvas, and so much more to personal gratification than simply pleasing oneself. If you want to do anything well, you must be prepared to understand some of the technical aspects of your chosen area of expertise. Of course if this is just recreational fun for you … I need say no more, but I thought you were taking this adventure into painting seriously.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Of course there’s much more to painting that “splashing around on a canvas.” Apparently you and I have different ideas and opinions on the role art plays. I would love to see some of your art work. Do you ever post it on your blog?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. My artwork is totally irrelevant to the science behind it. Music demonstrates the science beautifully in that certain chord sequences,certain structures, whether to use a bridge or not … are all behind popular songs. Elton John (e.g.) understands all that, which is why he has many hits. Someone who composes without that knowledge is on a hit or miss exercise. In art, if you can understand what gives appeal to certain paintings, then your own paintings can incorporate such factors and will be more rewarding.

        However, I am sensing that you are not receptive to learning beyond your own “trial and error” and, as I greatly value my time, I will not be following your blog any further. I wish you all the best in your artistic journey.


    1. It was interesting to do a little research and come up with several different answers for the question. I did enjoy finding the “Natural Navigator” site. If I ever get lost in the woods, I’ll have some idea now of how to find my directions. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Very nice to meet you! Yes, your sunrises and sunsets would be exactly the opposite, and it was very interesting to learn a bit of “science” behind them. This is part of a little month-long art project I’m doing. An old issue of “Artist” magazine had a feature about an artist who painted 3 x 5 index cards for 31 days, and it sounded like fun. I wanted a chance to look at and learn from a few “tonalist” artists, so I decided to do my own 31-day “index card” project. I am loving it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I too would have assumed that was a photo of a sunrise. I can see how the prevailing wind would shape trees, but didn’t realise it was a countrywide phenomenon… Interesting… But it still *looks* like a sunrise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL… yes, it was interesting to learn about sunrises and sunsets. Since I did the research on that, I’ve had a number of other articles about sunrises and sunsets show up in my Google News Feed. Interesting reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. It’s been fun to learn about sunrise and sunset. I’ve also read a bit about “the golden hour” in the morning, and a similar time in the evening. Of course, I love learning anything about the natural world.


  3. Lovely work! Peaceful, calming, and your colors are fantastic!! Thank you so much for sharing your work with us! One of my very good friends is a watercolor artist and the emotion she puts into her work is incredible. You can read her heart in her art. I am always drawn in and I feel the same with your painting. Great job and what a gift you have! I sit in great admiration! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Why, thank you so much for those kind words! I’m so happy that you find something good in my art. Does your friend have a blog or website? I would love to see her watercolors!


      1. Hi Judith! I am so sorry but my friend does not have a website and is not much into social media. I will ask her if it is okay to take a couple of photos of the pieces she has given to me. I am not able to share because she is a quiet and private individual and because of her painting copyrights. I apologize! Enjoy your day and I look forward to seeing more of your work.

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