Many of my paintings over the years have been inspired by the golden aura of low-pressure sodium street lamps. Artificial lighting such as this has always held a fascination for me and it illuminates the darkness in unusual ways.
The streetlamp outside the house where I grew up shone with a sodium colour through my bedroom window and I often watched it and others in the street flicker on at dusk, starting with a pale neon red and gradually warming into a rich yellow. Despite being bright in colour, the lighting seemed stark and austere in feel. I recall a journey home from central London one night where I noticed that the colours on an exhibition brochure I was carrying appeared drab, lifeless and grey under the strange glare of the street lighting.
Low-pressure sodium lighting creates a monochromatic effect which renders all natural colouring as neutral shades of grey. To illustrate how this effect works, I set up an experiment at home (see image below) using a sodium lamp that I own and comparing it to ordinary lighting. The scene on the left shows objects illuminated under a standard incandescent household lightbulb. As you can see, they reflect a full range of colours. The image on the right shows the same objects illuminated using the sodium lamp. Here the colours have disappeared, creating a bland palette of amber and black tones, reminiscent of a vintage sepia-toned photograph.
It is this arresting and unsettling effect that makes low-pressure sodium lighting an interesting study for painting. Outdoor scenes are transformed into something strange: greens appear muddied, objects and buildings become dark and spaces are difficult to discern. Recreating the colouring, however, can be a challenge, especially when working plein-air. I make sure that the paint surface is lit sufficiently with a natural lamp so I can mix amber and black tones using my standard palette of colours.
Several artists over the years have turned their hand to painting landscapes that feature amber sodium lamps, such as Danny Markey and, from a mildly nostalgic point of view, Chris Cyprus (who made it his personal mission to paint as many views as possible with these lights in the town of Ramsbottom, Lancashire before they were replaced with white LED lights).
The golden era of the low-pressure sodium lamp has faded away but one might still find the odd streetlight or two in areas where a local authority has yet to replace them. What it means, however, is that the colour of my night-time landscape art is unequivocally changing...