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The Purkinje Effect - Perspectives No. 97

The Purkinje Effect
Perspectives No. 97

Watercolor by John Hulsey
Night Music                Watercolor               John Hulsey


   Have you ever noticed how the colors of objects look so radically different in the very low light just before dawn or twilight? Take a red rose, for instance. We know that the flowers are bright red against the green of the leaves in daylight. But, take a look at dusk and you will see that suddenly the contrast is reversed, with the red flower petals now appearing a dark red or dark warm gray, and the leaves appearing relatively bright.

   This difference in contrast is called the Purkinje effect, or Purkinje shift, named after the Czech anatomist Jan Evangelista Purkyne who discovered it on his early morning walks in 1819. It is the tendency for the peak luminance sensitivity of the human eye to shift toward the blue end of the spectrum at low illumination levels.

   The effect occurs because the color-sensitive cones in the retina are most sensitive to yellow light. The retinal rods are more light-sensitive (good for low light levels), but do not distinguish colors very well at all. They are mainly sensitive to green-blue light. This is why it is very difficult to distinguish other colors in moonlight.

   We become nearly color blind under low levels of illumination. As the light dims, the rods take over from the cones, and before color disappears entirely, our color perception shifts toward the blue-green spectrum.

   This brings us around to the subject of Nocturnes again. The Purkinje effect explains why we can't see many colors at night. However, that doesn't help us make a good night painting. After all, the painting itself is not meant to be viewed by moonlight, yet it must contain the magic of that light, which is really more appreciated by being there at the moment.

   The job for the artist is to somehow capture the beauty of that moment, and the secret to that is to add more than can be physically perceived at the time. We have to engage our imaginations and put back into the subject some of the color that has been lost. We also play with boosting the chroma of the colors which are there and expanding the value range so that there is more depth of field and a bit of detail in the subject. This is tricky to get right and bends the rule of "never paint what isn't there," but with practice, it can be done well. And, when it is done well, a Nocturne can be every bit as powerful as any painting executed in day light. Try it. At least you won't get sunburned.

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Copyright Hulsey Trusty Designs, L.L.C. (except where noted). All rights reserved.
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A Primer on Night Painting - Nocturnes

Nocturnes - A Primer on Night Painting

Filled with inspirational examples by the masters of nightime painting, this little book is sure to fire up your creative energies. Never tried painting at night? We show you how it's done with a step-by-step-oil demo and a tale of night painting in the wilds of Rocky Mountain National Park. The Primer on Night Painting - Nocturnes is a 7 x 7" PDF download with 40 pages of text and images. It includes a gallery of paintings by masters of the nocturne, information to inspire and encourage you in your plein air nocturne painting, an illustrated step-by-step demo and tips for working in pastel and oil. Also available in a softcover edition. Check out the tools and other products that we use in our own art and travels in The Artist's Road Store. We only offer things for sale that we enthusiastically believe in.

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About Us

Photograph of John Hulsey and Ann Trusty in Glacier National Park
We are artists, authors and teachers with over 40 years of experience in painting the world's beautiful places. We created The Artist's Road in order to share our knowledge and experiences with you, and create a community of like-minded individuals.  You can learn more about us and see our original paintings by clicking on the links below.
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 Hulsey Trusty Studios

We are also regular contributors to the Plein Air blog at Artist Daily.

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