Painting Plein Air Winter Sunrises

Over the shortest days of this past winter—from mid December through mid-January—I created 21 small, 5×5 inch, plein air paintings of the sunrise. Painting sunrises as they happen had been on my mind for while, and it was pure chance, not planning, that I did it over the solstice season. It proved to be a good time for this work.

Painting the sunrise did not take a lot of time, usually no more than an hour, and a significant amount was gained, including increased self knowledge as a painter. I heartily recommend this as an exercise for any landscape artist, if only for gaining the satisfaction of having created a piece of art before 7.30 in the morning!

December/January mornings have some benefits for the sunrise painter: Dawn/sunrise occurs relatively late so it is not too arduous in terms of getting up and being ready and working before the light has appeared. At 6.30am I was setting up my paints and paper. At 6.50 the pre-sunrise light began and by 7.10 it was over, the sun was up and bright.

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December 10th, my first pre-sunrise plein air painting.
sky, landscape
December 11th, the pin oak at the bottom of my yard against the dawn sky
sky, trees, landscape
December 11th I was including many of the trees on the horizon, which I didn’t do later

There are two drawbacks, however, but both are easily solved: First, it is cold outside. I was lucky in that my screened porch faces east and south, and is entered through glass doors, so I got a good unimpeded view of the sunrise from inside the house; so solving issues about staying warm.

sky, landscape
sky, landscape
Sunrise

The second problem was the short duration of a winter sunrise. I had to maintain a fast speed of execution. I had to be completely ready – brush in hand, paints on the pallet — 15 minutes before the event. I also painted small, using heavy weight paper, usually Arches oil or watercolor, that I gessoed several days in advance. Because of the need for speed, all the paper was in a 5×5 inch format, measured out with Frog Tape onto a board. The small size enabled two or even three paintings to be done in one 20 minute sitting.

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Before the sun appears - 5x5 in. - oil on paper (Dec 2018)
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The Sun Approaches - 5x5 in. - oil on paper (Dec 2018)
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It sounds like a truism that sunrises change over time, even over as short a period as 20 minutes, but that change is really felt when one is sitting there observing it moment by moment. I was astonished by the variation in color both by the minute, and from day to day. That handful of 20 minute periods where I created 21 small paintings increased my sensitivity to the color and mood of the beginning of the day.

Trees, landscape
Sunrise and first snow 1 - 5x5 in. - oil on paper (Jan 3, 2019)

The night between January 2nd and 3rd saw the first snow fall, the air in the morning was white, reflecting the fallen snow

January 6th was a cloudy morning, but the light and sky changed
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Sunrise at first snow 2 - 5x5 in. - oil on paper (Jan 3, 2019)
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Sunrise Sky January 3, 2019, 5x5 in., oil on paper
Sunrise Sky January 3, 2019, 5x5 in., oil on paper
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January 6th was a cloudy morning, but the light and sky changed

I gained more than just this aesthetic appreciation for the changes over a sunrise, I also learned/developed various techniques and styles of working.

One of the most unexpected developments was how I progressed as a painter. I began by trying to copy the scene, first by only including a few trees on the horizon so the sky was more prominent. Then I began to add only one tree in the view. After that I found myself increasingly painting just the light of the air. This was brought home to me in early January after the first snow fall. There was a pervasive whiteness to the light and air that I found myself constantly trying to capture. This was an instinctual reaction, I didn’t set out to do it, it just happened; and the drive to capture the air as opposed to objects in it continued from then on.

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By January 17 I was painting the light more than just the sky

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sky

Another unexpected result from creating this pre-sunrise art, was being able to clearly see the trunks and branches of the deciduous trees that surround my yard. They formed a striking silhouette against the sky that was lost once the sun was up and shining. I sketched (using micro pens) many of the surrounding trees, which I feel should help future paintings as I now have a bank of interesting shapes to draw from.

Trees
Three of the six sketches I made of trees during these sessions, using ink on Bristol board, which I attached to a cardboard backing with frog tape, so maintaining similar dimensions to the 5x5 paintings.

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