En Plein Air: The Golden Hour

One of the most beautiful times of day is that hour or so before sunset, when the sun is making its way down the sky and a warm, golden glow engulfs the landscape. Photographers refer to this time of day as the “Golden Hour” because the light is so diffuse and pure and the shadows so dramatic that a perfect shot is almost guaranteed.

Painters also love this time of day for the same reasons photographers do, although artists have the advantage of being able to perceive a far greater range of light and tone than a camera can. Although the light changes very rapidly during Golden Hour moments, it can still be a great time to be on location to observe and quickly paint the variations of color and value that are taking place as the sun shines its last light of the day. Some of the day’s most breathtaking visual effects take place during the Golden Hour, and depending on your location and latitude, the time of year, and the weather, Golden Hour moments can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. (Visit www.golden-hour.com for a visual explanation of how the Golden Hour changes depending on your location/latitude and the time of year.)

Golden Horizon
by Robert Wood, ca. 1952, oil, 30 x 40. Private collection.
A Golden Hour painting by the great American landscape painter Robert Wood.

The Golden Hour is officially the first and last hour of sunlight each day (when the sun is approximately 6 degrees above or 6 degrees below the horizon), so it occurs at both sunrise and sunset. The scientific explanation for the warm, light-filled glow present during Golden Hours is that when the sun is close to the horizon, its light has more atmosphere to travel through, which results in a greater display of its illumination back into the atmosphere and sky. The golden glow is due to blue light being dispersed and scattered as the sunlight moves closer to the earth. With the cool, blue light scattered, only the warmer, more reddish wavelengths remain.

Most plein air painters who paint during sunrise or sunset Golden Hours would advise you to premix your colors in anticipation of the effect you want to capture. It’s also a good idea to arrive on-site a good hour before the ideal Golden Hour moment to get yourself situated and properly set up to capture what could be only a momentary light effect. You may even want to scope out a particular spot without paints for a few days (at the same time, during the same weather) just to get an idea of what typically transpires in terms of light and shadow during that time.

For those of you attending American Artist's Weekend With the Masters this September, or those of you from the Colorado area, you won’t want to miss our “Golden Hour” Sunrise Demo in Garden of the Gods Park. George Gallo—the writer/director of the movie Local Color and a professional painter—and California plein air painter Frank Serrano will be leading this demonstration that begins at 6 a.m and goes until 8:30 a.m. For more information and to sign up, visit www.aamastersweekend.com.

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Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

8 thoughts on “En Plein Air: The Golden Hour

  1. This is definitely my favorite time to paint, although it has it’s disadvantages. The sun is so strongly orange,that it tends to reduce the range of color, and warms everything incredibly. The shadows also tend to be a bit more monotone. But it’s an incredible time.

    I remember once while I was traveling through Scandinavia, I was there the end of June. It took hours for the sun to set, and the golden hour lasted hours as well. Ah, if we could only experience that a few months a year here?

  2. Being a plein air painter I have been in search of the perfect light, of the elusive golden hour, for many years. The light changes so dramatically it goes from a few minutes, down to, literally just a few seconds for giving chase to it. Having an aray of panel sizes attached to a larger board, allows you to move with the light. As you try to capture the fleeting essence, moment by moment, moving to smaller and smaller panels. I often fine myself afraid to take my eyes away, afraid that I might miss the instance of time when the sun slips out of sight. Even then the sky holds on to the vehemence radiance of sun’s last light, just long enough that you can catch your breath. I am in love with this time of day, and grateful that I can experience it.

  3. This time of the day is what I call the “Magic Hour.” Without a doubt it is THE MOST favourite time of day for me to paint!! There is nothing more alluring, more magical about the quality of light. For me personally it is the end of day light that inspires! Morning light is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but there is something about the end of day light. It is the way the light reveals itself, transitioning from a golden color to a more intense fiery orange red color then fades slowly and disappears. Also what is really neat are the long deep colorful shadows that take on mysterious personalities. Where I paint there are a lot of woodlands and I have always remarked how incredible the end of day light looks as its fiery fingers reach in and touch upon tree trunks and caress the forest floor. Since I am very much attune to the prismatic qualities of light, I can swear that I see more of the prism in the sunlight objects during the “magic hour.” Always in quest of the ultimate light effect, the magic hour is the ideal time for me to paint an array of spectacular challenging light effects that are truly magical and ephemeral.

  4. The Golden Hour is becoming a favorite time to head down to the shoreline of Lake Michigan to paint! Often there are dramatic clouds moving in over the lake. The water surface takes on an exciting variety of reflected light colors. Of course, this is also prime time for clouds of swarming bugs, so it’s important to keep one’s mouth shut at all times when painting en plein air.

  5. I learned from a workshop en plein air to paint all of the painting, except the wonderful sky, and hopefully, when you put that beautiful orange sky in, it is the best moment to paint it. (Almost invariably, 15 minutes later, the sky turns to an incredible show of color, but alas, we can always hope).

  6. I loved hearing all of your comments about the Golden Hour, and glad to see some other people as jazzed about that time of day as me. Share your paintings when you can!