Art Fundamentals Essay – Digitising Hopper

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper (1942)


“Nighthawks” is an oil on canvas painting by Edward Hopper showing a 1940’s diner, reputed to be located in Manhattan. Set at night, it displays what you could describe as a snapshot in time, with three figures sitting at the well-lit bar being served by a fourth.  The painting has had a large impact on popular American culture throughout television and film, including Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction classic “Bladerunner”.

I was constantly waving a reproduction of this painting under the noses of the production team to illustrate the look and mood I was after”. – Ridley Scott (about “Nighthawks”)

(SAMMON, 1996)

The first thing that is brought to our attention in the composition of the piece is the use of colour to indicate depth. As with many artists, for instance Cezanne with his work “Still Life with Skull (Nature morte au crane, 1895 – 1900)”, Hopper uses differing colour palettes not just to indicate light and dark within the scene, but to create depth and volume in an otherwise 2D composition. Heavy use of blues and greys push the background further away from the viewer, while warmer hues such as oranges, creams and red are used to pull the focus of the observer to the main area of Hopper’s work – the window and within. This use of colour to draw attention, pulling and pushing the areas of composition into a perspective framework culminates with the eye-catching red of the woman’s dress, lipstick and hair at the bar.


“Nature morte au crane” by Paul Cézanne (1895 – 1900)

The light and colour inside is almost over-saturated, the flesh tones are almost white, and as our gaze is pulled away to the outside, the contrast of light and dark echoes the overall composition; where the light doesn’t fall, the greys and blues create a cold sense of isolation, yet where the diner’s light is seen, the hues are warmed and saturated. The welcome of the diner is pushing out into the night.

This colour palette is echoed in Ridley Scott’s vision of the future. Blade Runner incorporates the darker and colder shades of blue to represent the depression, loneliness and the unknown of the outside world, whilst again, the warmer shades of orange, yellows and reds create moments of solace and the feeling of safety.  This mimicking of colours and hues are consistently used throughout the film, and is achieved using  a visual effects technique called grading which is applied during post production.


Blade Runner by Ridley Scott (1982)

“… with the painting’s colour palette faithfully reproduced on screen.”

(O’HARA and DE SEMLYEN, 2015)

However, while Hopper uses colour to indicate depth in a traditional way, his use of perspective contradicts this.

Traditionally, perspective is used to draw the viewer’s eye to the main part of a painting, to a major focal point. This can be seen most famously in Da Vinci’s Last Supper, where every perspective line draws the observer’s eye to the middle of the frame, in this case Jesus Christ. 


“The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci (1495-1498)


Perspective Lines applied over The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

In Hopper’s “Nighthawks”, the 2-point perspective actively pulls the observer’s eyes away from the window. Your eyes are pulled along the line of the diner, and then around the corner and away. This creates a dynamism on behalf of the observer which is usually left to the subject of the painting.


Perspective lines applied over Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Whereas usually the artist would create a sense of action within the work, using brushstrokes, characters expression or physical movement, Hopper has left us with a snapshot in time that we can look at should we choose. The figures are stationary and isolated, whilst the street is deserted. It is the observer moving through this world, giving the feeling that you are the  only kinetic aspect. We are drawn by and away due to the use of perspective, but should we choose to look into the window we are rewarded with the warmth of the indoors and the untold story of the figures within.

There is a curious contradiction of elements in the composition, using colours to enforce one thing and perspective to enforce another, but it creates beautifully the sense that you are just another person on the street, as these people are.

This sensation is further evoked, again by the perspective used, that the darkness of the world around the diner extends far beyond the frame of the picture as the vanishing points are situated a large distance off the canvas. That this is almost an oasis in a desert. The clever inclusion of the door situated on the right-hand wall of the diner acts as a stopping point, preventing the viewers attention from wandering beyond it.

Whilst not affected to the same degree as a static and framed image, “Blade Runner” is renowned for its use of physical models and architectural perspective work, as opposed to the use of the CGI more prevalent in modern film. The use of forced and 2-point perspective throughout the movie reflects Hopper’s use of the same in “Nighthawks”; to fill out a living world beyond the confines of the screen and to draw the viewer’s gaze to the darkness of the streets beyond. In fact, many of the visual compositions used in “Blade Runner” could be seen as a direct mirror to Hopper’s usage of it in the painting.


Perspective lines and vanishing point applied over a scene from Blade Runner by Ridley Scott

The use of the Golden Section and “Rule of Thirds” is also clearly evident in this painting, creating a pleasing composition that is balanced, despite the aggressive contradiction of style used between the colour and perspective. However, one of the main purposes I find in Hopper’s use of the rule of thirds in this painting is to create a sense of isolation between the figures in the diner. The couple are there on their own, away from the single diner sat with his back facing us. And it seems that this single diner is the main point of the painting when we look closely. He’s shrouded in greys and blues – he IS the outside. He is a passer by, and when using the Golden Section we see he occupies his own section in the composition.


The rule of thirds applied over Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

To recreate Hopper’s classic with modern technology and methods I feel would suitably be achieved using photo and graphics editing software such as Adobe Photoshop as a 2D composition.

Hopper’s workflow began with an abundance of planning with numerous hand-drawn storyboards before committing to a final layout, an important process still used today within a project’s pre-visualisation stage as part of pre-production.  At this stage Hopper would have to transfer these guidelines onto canvas manually, before beginning to apply oil paint upon it using brushes.  Whereas this process has been made simpler with the availability of hardware such as scanners, allowing us to convert the sketch into a digital image in preparation for colouring.  An alternative would be to use additional hardware such as a graphics tablet in conjunction with the Photoshop software’s custom pencil and brush tools to replicate line drawing directly into a digital document.

Whilst there are numerous presets, the brush tool can further be manipulated by adjusting a variety of settings including scattering, texture and transfer.  The shape dynamics setting detects the angle of the stylus and the pressure applied upon it to dynamically change the brush stroke, as a result help replicate oil on canvas, as used by Hopper.

In Hopper’s painting the texture of the canvas is visible through the strokes of paint, a detail which is not displayed by default within Adobe Photoshop.  This effect can be achieved by editing the texture settings of a the artists chosen brush and applying a preset such as “Artist Brushes Canvas”, further changing the scale and depth of the grain as required.


Example colour palette used on Hopper’s Nighthawks

Hopper’s use of harmonious colours is evident within the painting, with deep reddish browns used for the warmer areas and dull blueish greens used for cooler area and shadows.  He also incorporates a tertiary colour in yellows and oranges to represent any areas of the composition which is providing or reflecting light.  Using modern software an artist can use the “colour dropper” tool to perfectly match that used on the original.  However, if the artist wished to recreate the painting using alternative colours whilst maintaining a harmonious scheme, there are numerous swatch and palette creating tools or websites available which allow you to choose from a variety of rules including monochromatic, complementary and analogous.  In my opinion, Nighthawks is best served using a triadic palette.

In the result of an error, Photoshop allows the artist to erase, undo or re-trace their steps.  You could argue that these modern “lifelines” would result in the artist being more careless as the mistakes can easily be amended without any consequences. However, I feel these advancements of tools allow the artist to work more fluently, also quickly in aid of meeting swift deadlines often seen in the games, animation and visual effects industries.

An additional positive of graphics editing software is that it allows you to adjust post-processing elements such as brightness, contrast, saturation and colour balance on the fly, even once your painting is finished. By adjusting these settings, aspects such as the mood, temperature, lighting and colour can be changed dramatically.  As a result, completely overhauling the composition of the image which would otherwise be set in stone if producing this on canvas.

The techniques discussed are just a sample of a wide range of software and tools available for creating and editing digital artwork.

In conclusion, whilst the use of modern software and processing effects can be used to recreate such famous pieces of work, great care must be taken not to fall into the trap wherein ease-of-use and the ability to easily erase one’s mistakes creates a situation where the art of composition and colour are forgotten. Ridley Scott showed us this in Blade Runner, carefully using the tools at his disposal to make his composition and his vision come to life.

An artist or designer should use these tools to augment their skills, and not replace them.


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