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.