What is the color of your nights? Are they mysterious or rather festive? What colors evoke dreams for you? Does insomnia have a color? Is the darkness soft or frightening, like when as a child you needed an open door to let a trickle of light accompany your sleep?
After the challenge on the palette of the magical hour, logically comes the challenge of the colors of the night.
Let’s browse through the works of artists together to probe their nocturnal impressions. Can you feel the spirit of the forest here? There the sparkling lights of the bars and the colorful play of cocktails?
Let’s look at their palette. Let’s get inspired. Let’s copy them. And, thanks to this journey into the heart of the night, let’s create!
But first, a little diversion to the perceptive aspects of our night vision.
What vision at night?
In the previous challenge I mentioned the different vision systems we have. Depending on the degree of illumination we use the photopic, mesopic or scotopic system. The photopic one is active in broad daylight; the mesopic one works at the blue hour or during a full moon night while scotopic one is required in dimmer conditions.
The photopic system is based on cones, cells of three types that allow us to distinguish colors. The last one, the scotopic system, does not have this faculty, it only perceives variations in brightness, thanks to the rods, another type of cells present on the retina.
Also, at night, both systems may come into action and sometimes compete. At full moon, it is preferable to count on the mesopic vision rather than using a flashlight. Too much light and our adaptation to dark is broken: it takes time for the rods to regenerate; besides, that specific vision allows us to distinguish shades in the shadows. Moreover, without a flashlight, if the sky is clear, the moon should provide enough light to enjoy colorful, blue-shifted vision, as we now know.
The wiring of the rods is such that it does not allow objects to be distinguished very well, despite a contrast in clarity. It’s as if, when switching to night vision, we were abandoning our high-definition camera for a first-generation phone camera.
Inspiration and observation
In pictorial representations, however, artists do not hesitate to combine several types of vision. If they were considering night vision only, the paintings would be rather limited in their colors. Nevertheless, lovers of chiaroscuro find their happiness in such limited tones, as I have shown in challenge #2.
The choice to describe one as mesopic and the other as nocturnal may seem arbitrary and will not always be in accordance with the titles provided by their author. Below, you will find several artists already presented, as if, after having tasted the pleasures of the early night, they had wanted to continue their exploration.
Once is not customary: no new photographic inspirations, except mine. If you miss some, you may still come back to Gregory Crewson in the article devoted to light and in challenge #2 where other photographers and engravers also express themselves, rather in black and white.
But, above all, let us rediscover our childlike soul, particularly touched by these palettes. To this end, the current challenge gives pride of place to animated films, comic books and contemporary illustration.
We find back William Degouve de Nuncques (1887-1935) in this pastel “Nocturne in the Royal Park of Brussels”. The white spheres of the lampposts are like multiple moons diffusing their bluish light. This conscious or unconscious analogy contributes to the strangeness of the scene.
In the previous challenge I have promised other works of Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946). He was particularly fond of the nocturnal atmospheres of Ostend, the seaside town from which he came. The painting below reminds us of William Degouve de Nuncques, except that we are contemplating the see.
Below, this wash in Indian ink, gouache and colored pencil, of great simplicity, adopts an almost neutral palette, as we see it in low light conditions. The next one, done in the same technique is more frightening.
In 1887, the American painter Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) founded the first colony of American artists in Giverny, near Monet’s house. He painted this “Night of May” in 1906. Note on the left, behind the trees, the orange hue that animates this dark corner of the vegetation responding to the patches of light brought by the chestnut tree flowers on the right. A woman merges with a column of the building, another whose head is lost in the shadow projects us into a dreamlike world.
Several paintings by Henry Le Sidaner (1862-1939) illustrated the magic hour; the painter continues his quest as a colorist of the night in this “Moonlight on a square in Cherbourg”. The illuminated window, this little orange touch, the only bright spot of color in the painting, plays its tonic effect and catches our eye.
So far the night has been presented to us in its softness, strangeness and sometimes its share of anguish and loneliness. With Expressionism, we approach a completely different register.
Beyond the cartoonist style of the paintings of the expressionist painter Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956), one is struck by the variety of tones he associates to create nocturnal atmospheres.
Moreover, the title of the painting below helps us to become aware of the effect of artificial light; “The White Man” appears to us in a white suit while generous touches of yellow are spread over his clothes, a result of the urban lighting.
Figurative painting does not have a monopoly on night.
Is it the choice of black in the background of the painting “Several circles” by Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) below that evokes the night, or these shapes evoking planets or objects lost in space?
To create an abstract painting that is immediately associated with the night is a feat that Nicolas de Staël (1914-1955) undoubtedly achieved with the painting “Mediterranean” presented below.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was the leader of the “Color Field” movement. This movement considers color in its own right, out of context; it becomes a subject in its own right. Yet the painting “No. 61 (Rust and Blue)”, painted around the same time, evokes for me a seascape at night.
It is impossible to miss the mythical “Night Hawks” by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) in this challenge on the night palette. The contrast between the illuminated bar and the darkness of the deserted street is highlighted by the light yellow, to the right of the couple, and the dark blue-grey on which the couple stands out. This frame, in which three figures are inscribed, is extended to the left by the rhythm of dark colors of the opposite facade and reinforces the solitude of the man in the center of the painting.
What other painter than Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) will give you a greater impression of strangeness? Would he have access to our dreams? Most of the scenes depicted in his paintings take place at night, in a dreamlike world populated by absent characters, except perhaps in this one, where we can easily identify with the little girl. The color palette is limited, always with khaki greens to illustrate the vegetation, a red dot as a tonic, Prussian blue lightening on the horizon for the sky, all linked by more or less dark grey. This choice of colors is reminiscent of the “Night of May”, presented above.
Would you dare to go and see “Me, ugly and mean” without feeling obliged to be accompanied by a child? As much as the omnipresent humor, the musical or pictorial references delight me, as much as the drawing and the colors charm me.
Below our heroes are sitting on the steps of the stairs in the moonlight. A few pastilles highlight the choice of colors: the dark purplish reds of the flowers, the dark greens of the vegetation, the bluish moon, the terrace in shades of blue more or less brilliant.
The palette of the forest in the moonlight of the short film “Maestro” directed by Bloom Pictures, will enchant you, but don’t forget to turn on the sound, you will be surprised by the talent of the squirrel conductor.
The colorist talent of Alexandre Clérisse (born in 1980 – Instagram @Clerissealexandre) bursts out in “The Diabolik Summer”. In “Memories of the ATOME Empire”, we were already passengers in a vehicle driving through forests and villages plunged in a darkness tinged with muted tones; we tasted the first neon lights of the 50s. Clérisse, with his minimal choice of colors, revealed to us the intimacy of a barely lit room, or the cold magic of a technological demonstration.
There are many artistic references in the work of this draughtsman. In the Challenge #6 you have discovered David Hockney’s swimming pools; notice how Clérisse is inspired by them and give us his night view, of which he keeps a few colors for conversation at the edge of the pool.
And the search for night-time palettes continues in “A Year Without Chtulhu”.
Brecht Evens (born 1986 – Instagram @evens.brecht) knows the palette of sleeping nature. See how he deploys it in the illustration below. But his illustrations take us more often into the city. Is the city his muse? Like Monet, he captures all its chromatic nuances. Below you can see the lights of Paris at night, and discover how colors dress him at sunset, at noon or in the morning. Just like Monet’s cathedrals, these same views of Paris under different lights complete the Challenge #6. But the artist’s virtuosity explodes especially in the nightlife of the bustling pavements, noisy bars and crowds.
This time I choose the same abstract composition to copy some of the palettes illustrated in this article. Do you recognize them?
In addition to the photography proposed in the introduction, here are a few proposals for nocturnal palettes, in a few declinations: mysterious, romantic, festive, graphic, and “detective story atmosphere”.
Now, what’s the color of your night?
The night and its mysteries, the night and its lights are yours! You have discovered the impressions of some artists; what colors does the night inspire you now? Ideas for your wardrobe? To decorate a room? To create your next painting?
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May your nights be colorful and bring you as much joy as mystery.