The Earth's axial tilt of 23.5°, as we all learned in elementary school, produces our four seasons. An engineer friend once did the basic solid geometry work for me that proved that at our winter solstice in Cincinnati, we received slightly less than half the sunlight on a given area of land than we do at the summer solstice. It's not tough to understand. When the sun shines down on us at a more oblique angle, the same quantity of sunshine is spread out over a larger area.
I never was terribly aware of the lowering of the noonday sun until I began doing a lot of outdoor landscape painting. When one is fascinated with reproducing the sensation of bright sunshine on canvas, the lack of such sunshine becomes something personal. I recall one November afternoon a few years back, trying to fake it, to pretend that the days were as bright as they are in the summer. One might just as well pretend that there is no law of gravity. Seasons ought to be embraced. One can choose to live at a lower or higher latitude, but that 23.5° just won't go away. If you want the dazzle of sunshine in your winter pictures, you may have to stick to the Golden Hour (see the post from two weeks ago), and catch the descending sun's rays as they hit upright objects perpendicularly, as they do the ground plane during the summer.
When Europeans first began exploring equatorial Africa and South America, a lot of them did so at the cost of their eyesight. I've never experienced sunlight from directly overhead, and neither had they, but it isn't something to be trifled with. I have a friend in Brazil. I keep toying with the idea of asking him to host me for a few weeks in late December sometime. I'd love to see for myself sometime the ultimate blast of the sun, and see it right on the heels of winter solstice here.
Another fantasy long held is the notion of getting in my truck in the middle of June and driving as far north as roads will take me. Civilization seems to require a sun that climbs a few degrees,
The noonday sun goes up, and it goes down. At its nadir we celebrate, because we know it's going to begin to creep upward. Chanukah, Ramadan, Kwanza, the Roman Saturnalia, New Years Eve and of course Christmas. The best Biblical scholarship indicates Jesus Christ's birth taking place in early September, but the Roman Church leaders' choosing a date so close to the solstice can hardly be written off as a coincidence.
And of course it isn't just the height of the sun that changes, but the whole panoply of flora, fauna and atmosphere. Foliage and leaves disappear at the treetops, and then the level of that disappearance descends. November is the month of that descent. The trees reveal their structures, like a cocktail party of skeletons. Grass becomes brown.
I don't know the scientific reasons why, but winter skies do not resemble summer skies. The puffy cumulus clouds of summer aren't much in evidence. Stratus and cirrus clouds rule the day. You can see it in the picture above. Winter may not be as pleasant to the plein air painter as summer, but the skies are a lot easier to paint.
If you're smart, you'll hunt for the particular beauty to be found in each season and, for that matter, for each day of the year. If the height of the sun never changed, life would be far less pleasant.
It is noteworthy that, following the Great Flood, God told Noah that as long as the earth remained, there'd continue to be seasons (Genesis 8.22). This must have been a huge comfort to Noah. Little children thrive on daily schedules, familiar foods and predictable games. Grownups need the cycle of the seasons.
"The Circle Game", a celebration of the changing seasons and the process of growing up, is arguably Joni Mitchell's best song. "Here Comes the Sun" is about as good a piece of work as the Fab Four ever offered us. All of us, consciously or unconsciously, need to be reminded that life is a merry-go-round, not a conveyor belt.
Like it or lump it, summer looks like summer, fall looks like fall, winter looks like winter, and spring looks like spring. Impressionist landscape is the story of the changing seasons, and the only suggestion I can make is to dress in layers.