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Home » Challenge #7 The Magic Hour Palette

Challenge #7 The Magic Hour Palette

What colors evoke this magical moment for you, after sunset and before nightfall? That moment when lights come on here and there but still struggle to match the fading clarity of the sky? These moments between dusk and twilight, a gentle transition between day and night, symbol of the floating between the conscious and the unconscious.

This is my favorite hour. I try to enjoy it every day, preferring darkness to the unpleasant surprise of an electric light, which is nevertheless necessary. It is most delicious in summer, probably because you can taste it outside, perhaps on a terrace, in a garden or at the water’s edge; you hardly have time to enjoy it when night comes.

Why do flowers wait for this moment to exhale their scent?

Would there be a single palette to convey these impressions? To answer this question and to devote oneself to it, let us get inspired (G), observe (O), reproduce (R) and create (C).

But first, a little diversion through biology to explain why this moment is really special. The lazy will avoid it and the curious will want to know more, so in a future article I will expand on these scientific aspects.

Vinciane Lacroix, Etretat at blue hour (CC-BY-SA-2.5)

The “mesopic” palette

For the biological beings that we are, this moment is special because our nocturnal visual system, adapted to lower luminosity, begins to come into action while the diurnal system is still in operation. This vision is called mesopic.

Only daytime vision, known as photopic, allows full enjoyment of colors, thanks to three types of sensors placed on the retina. Night vision or scotopic vision, on the other hand, does not make it possible to distinguish colored shades, having only one type of sensor to detect weak luminous flux. However, its particularity is that it is more sensitive to rays of shorter wavelengths, the bluish part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Also, at dawn and twilight, our spectral sensitivity is increased in the blue range, thanks to the rods, as these sensors allow low luminous fluxes to be integrated. Thus, they sharpen our perception of blue, making it brighter, to the detriment of reds, which are perceived darker and perhaps more purplish. This phenomenon is called the Purkinje effect.

According to Robert Sève, mesopic vision is spread over three levels, depending on the ambient light. At its lowest level, it corresponds to vision outside on a full moon night. At the medium and high level, it is vision that guides our steps at night in dimly lit streets or, during the day, in dark interiors.

If biology distinguishes three levels, let’s see if the artists, through their works of art, offer us more.

Getting inspired

Finding the right colors according to nature is already a difficult exercise, but at least you can compare the result of the work done with the reality of the moment.

Representing the fluctuations of light in broad daylight, the subject of the previous article, is even more demanding, but one can hope that the phenomenon will be repeated quickly. There is nothing like this at the magical hour; the artist can only rely on his memory.

Today’s camera, depending on its sensitivity and noise level, and as long as the scene is underexposed, will be more or less faithful to our vision, but will it render the specific brilliance of blue? Yesterday’s technique required longer pause times; the blur generated represented mesopic vision, less precise than daytime vision. However, I’m looking forward to the digital filters that will simulate the Purkinje effect precisely, perhaps they already exist?

Neither filmmakers nor fashion photographers have waited for technological advances to immerse us in the atmosphere of dawn or dusk while filming and photographing by day. The day for night technique required the use of color filters to transport the viewer to the time when the dog is mistaken for the wolf. Today, in digital photography, color calibration simply does the job.

Works in the “Fin de Siècle” spirit

James Whistler

Although described as “nocturnal,” the palette of Whistler (1834-1903) in this series of paintings seems to me to be closer to twilight than to deep night; it contains the colors we perceive at the magic hour.

James Whistler, “Nocturne in Blue and Gold – Battersea’s Old Bridge” (1870)
James Whistler, Nocturne in Blue and Silver – Lights of Cremorne (1872 )

Le Douanier Rousseau

The dreamlike paintings of Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910) give me the impression of walking at dawn or dusk. Paintings on the edge between reason and fantasy, paradoxically considered naive.

The customs officer Rousseau, ” he snake charming” (1907)

William Degouve de Nuncques

William Degouve de Nuncques (1865-1935) was probably the Master of Mystery because of his art of handling the “mesopic” palette. In 1991, he painted the “Mysterious Garden”. Everything indicates that night will come soon.

William Degouve de Nuncques, “The Mysterious Garden” (1891)

Between 1899 and 1902 Degouve devoted himself largely to so-called night scenes, often in pastel. Blues and greens gradually became dominant. However, note the clues that suggest twilight rather than night: the color of the path or the color of the sky behind the fir trees.

William Degouve de Nuncques, “The Garden of Milan” (1895)
William Degouve de Nuncques, “The Peacocks” (1896)
William Degouve de Nuncques, “Night Effect” (1898)

John Singer Sargent

In the work of the painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) there are also several paintings depicting landscapes or gardens at dusk. Even if the second one is painted in the 20th century, it keeps this “fin de siècle” spirit.

John Singer Sargent “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” (1885-86)
John Singer Sargent “Vespers” (1909)

Léon Spilliaert

It is difficult to forget Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946), the master of shadows, in this enumeration dedicated to the “mesopic” palette. His interiors are particularly interesting in this respect. We will return to him in a future challenge.

Léon Spilliaert, left: “The bedroom”; right: “Guest table room”,ndian ink, wash, brush, pastel, watercolor on paper (1904)

In the 20th century

Le Sidaner

Henri Le Sidaner (1861-1937) painted several scenes at dusk in a style described as post-impressionist.

Le Sidaner, “The table in the white Garden in Gerberoy” (1906)
Le Sidaner, “The Stone Table at Evening Twilight” (1917)
Le Sidaner, “The White Garden at Dusk” (1924)
The Sidaner, Small table in evening dusk” (1921)

Otto Mueller

Otto Mueller (1856-1925) created his dominant motif of nude female bathers in the wilderness around 1908. This was a subject he shared with his expressionist painter friends during joint stays. However, only Mueller’s paintings have this soft palette which evokes the end of summer evenings.

Otto Mueller, “Sitting and kneeling figures on the shore of the Moritzburg lakes” (1912)

Edward Hopper

In this strangely framed painting by Edward Hopper (1882-1967), the brightness of the sky dominates. The lamppost and some rooms in the building are already lit. The foliage of the trees is darkening. It is magic time. Although dusk is mentioned in the title of the painting following, we can not yet feel the approach of the night; it is probably too early to speak of the “mesopic palette”.

Edward Hopper, “The House at Twilight” (1935)
Edward Hopper, Shakespeare at Dusk, 1935

Naive painting

Alfred Wallis (1845-1942) was a fisherman and began painting in 1922, after the death of his wife, more than 20 years his senior. Wallis retained the spontaneity and freshness of childhood, with the same sense of color and composition. The mental image imposes its own perspective.

Wallis, “the old house port mear square island, port mear beach” (1932)
Wallis, “houses at St-Ives Cornwall (1942)
Wallis, “St-Ives Harbour and godrevy” (1938)
Wallis, “String of boats” (1928)

Contemporary figurative painting

The palette of Karin Hanssen (b. 1960) heralds the beginning of the blue hour: reds and greens are getting darker, skin is fading and blue is about to shine.

Karin Hanssen, “Honda” (2002) © Karin Hanssen (courtesy of the artist)
Karin Hanssen ,”Rosalind” (2007) © Karin Hanssen (courtesy of the artist)

Contemporary photography

The fleeting moments of the blue hour resonate in the poetic and dreamlike images of Anne-Sophie Costenoble She shares them in her book “l’heure bleue”.

© Anne-Sophie Costenoble, From the series “Du vent dans les coquelicots” (courtesy of the artist)
© Anne-Sophie Costenoble, From the series “Du vent dans les coquelicots” (courtesy of the artist)

Contemporary ceramics

Although abstruse, the motifs of this vase evoke dark gardens at the hour when evening meets night, don’t they? Do you know the artist who made it?

Contemporary ceramics (CC-BY-SA Vinciane Lacroix)


Given the number of works proposed as sources of inspiration, the color exercise of this challenge#7 in the “Observe” and “Reproduce” section will be done together.

The game consists of drawing inspiration from the palettes observed above to create abstract compositions.
Can you recognize the ones that inspired me?

Vinciane Lacroix, Abstract compositions in “mesopic” palettes (CC-BY-SA)


Below is a series of photographs in which I have tried to capture the poetry of that magical moment when the day entrusts to the evening the art of magnifying the blue.

Underwood © Vinciane Lacroix
Bay of Arcachon © Vinciane Lacroix
Photo © Vinciane Lacroix
Paris at blue hour © Vinciane Lacroix
Desert © Vinciane Lacroix

Go ahead

Go out at the magic hour, nose up, senses awake. Capture the brilliance of the blues, notice the reds darken and the yellows become mustard. Watch the lights of the city gradually conquer the night. Let the soul wander, the shadows invade the paths. Get lost while smelling the perfumes of the air. Wrap yourself in the mystery of the night and disappear yourself in the dark tones of the mesopic palette.

When you come back home, draw from your memory tones linked by the fight of night over day to decorate your interior, your room or your outfits, if they inspire you or make you dream.

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