Northern Lights: Chris Cyprus's paintings capture the bygone beauty of sodium-lit streets

Manchester-based artist Chris Cyprus has recorded the distinctive glow of the city's sodium-lit lamps in Northern Lights, a series of 250 paintings illuminated with warmth from lights that are sadly no more.

There's something magical about walking around at night. Different lights take their place when the sun goes down and create a unique effect. This was especially the case in Northern England some 20 years ago when lamps were sodium-lit instead of the LED models in their place today. And it's their cosy glow that Chris Cyprus captures so evocatively in Northern Lights.

Painted between 2005 and 2017, Northern Lights sees Chris paint various locations, including Stockport, Staithes, Saddleworth and his hometown of Mossley, all illuminated by the golden aura of street lamps and indoor illuminations.

The project started as a series of four paintings and was sparked by a winter walk. "In the winter of 2005, after a heavy snowfall, I was inspired to take my camera out at dusk, capturing everyday life that would become the starting point for the Northern Lights series," Chris tells Creative Boom.

"The local chippy, the butcher's shop, weary commuters struggling against the weather to make it to work. All were captured first on film and then brought to life on canvas at my studio. Using a limited colour palette, I wanted to keep the series simple but capture the warmth and normality of my local surroundings under the sodium lights."

As well as drawing inspiration from his surroundings, the lights were also a point of nostalgia for Chris. "Arriving home from school in winter, the warm glow from illuminated terraced house windows was always comforting. I was subconsciously replicating this feeling in the Northern Lights series," he explains.

"I also wanted to preserve moments I saw in my everyday life on my way home from work, from my studio window. I was drawn into scenes that are overlooked during the day, scenes of no particular significance that came alive in the magical glow of yellow lamplight."

Chris jokes that transforming the everyday into something beautiful is a trademark of his work, and Northern Lights is no exception. In these striking paintings, everything from grit bins to back alleys, chippies to run-down garages all get elevated by their lighting.

Described by collectors as celebratory and joyful, Chris argues that the appeal of the Northern Lights series is not purely based on its visuals. "I like to think that the paintings connected with the viewer emotionally, in the sense of being reminded of a particular time and place," he says. "I realised I was onto something when a client visited my studio, saw his childhood home in one of the paintings and became teary-eyed… needless to say, he bought the painting. I realised at that moment how powerful art can be."

As for the colours, Chris achieved a sense of harmony by combining direct opposites on the colour wheel. These blues and oranges were the catalysts that fueled his excitement and proved to be his biggest fascination with the nighttime scenes. "I did some evening sketches outdoors but preferred using my camera to record scenes of interest which I could work on in oils back at my studio," he reveals.

"The paintings were completed in varying stages. Drying times were critical due to the contrasting tones, and I wanted to replicate the vivid depth of colour radiated by sodium lights. Preparation was the key; adding yellow to blue can result in muddy greens, so to avoid this involved painting in layers, waiting for each section to dry thoroughly, and then adding further detail to make the sodium lights pop once completely dry."

He adds: "I worked on around four paintings at the same time, in rotation, to make the best of my palette of colour, and so I could wait for each layer to dry between stages."

All the hard work paid off, as Chris sold every painting of his 2017 solo show. He only decided to call it a day at painting 250 for fear of repeating himself. These days he is branching out and exploring the contrast between n the rolling hills on the edge of the Pennines and the mass development over Manchester, just eight miles away, but he still holds a special spot for the Northern Lights series.

"I see Northern Lights as a documentary project, a snapshot in time," he concludes. "The government's scheme to replace sodium lighting with LED lights was introduced around 2015 and has gradually seen the streets of the UK changing forever under a stark white light. And although I appreciate the reasons for doing this, I will always cherish the golden glow of the Manchester streets at dusk."


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