A Painter’s Inspiration – Northern Lights and Prairie Memories

 by Errol Brimacombe

“I have many fond memories as a child growing up on a mixed, but largely grain, farm in south central Manitoba – the flapping wings of the male prairie chickens in spring in order to attract mates, the howling of wolves right outside my bedroom window from early evening until after midnight, the unique scents of the prairie grasses, blazing sunsets, cumulous clouds intruding on cerulean skies, tumultuous thunderclouds framing both forked and sheet lightning on sweltering evenings, rippling blue lakes of flax blossoms in spring, and golden wheat fields in autumn. My most indelible nighttime memories, however, are visions of the northern lights dancing and sometimes emitting electrifying sounds similar to those radiating from high tension wires. Although they were visible at different times throughout the year, they were most prevalent in the winter months. My memories of the cold white fields reflecting their brilliant colours has imbued many of my paintings. During a trip to Whitehorse, Yukon in 2003, my desire to paint the northern lights was rekindled. My wife Maureen and I were  mesmerized several nights in succession as we travelled in minus twenty degree temperatures gazing through the windshield at   hypnotically intense skies, alive in both colour and motion.

Many wonder about the exact causes of the northern lights. The answer is  complex, with many factors being involved. In the later stages of their development, when the colours are being formed, electrically charged particles from the sun are blown to earth in the solar wind and interact with either oxygen or nitrogen and other gases. When electrons interact with oxygen, green, yellow or red colours are formed, and when they interact with nitrogen, the result is different shades of blue. When they interact with a blend of both oxygen and nitrogen, various shades of purple, pink, and white result. Although most are deflected by the earth’s atmosphere, these electrically charged particles enter the atmosphere largely in the vicinity of both of earth’s poles where the magnetic fields are weakest. In the Northern Hemisphere they are referred to as the Aurora Borealis, and in the Southern Hemisphere, their counterparts are known as the Aurora Australis. Still, no scientific explanation can take away from their beauty and ancient “magic”, and they continue to inspire me to this day.”