Paint Evocative Nocturnes

Five artists paint nocturnes, tone poems of night.

If you’re an outdoor painter who’s provided many a meal for mosquitoes, just wait until you try painting at night. Minnesota artist Marc Hanson says, "When you’re next to the peaceful river painting the full moon on a calm July night, every single mayfly, mosquito and gnat will show up and land on your painting." He likes to tell the story about a painting he did by the St. Croix River in Minnesota. "It was so covered in mayflies, it looked like a piece of Berber carpet."

Across the Street (oil, 8×10) by Marc Hanson

Even so, painting at night offers great rewards. There’s nothing quite like the captured magic of stars over a snowy field or the warm glow of a storefront.

One of the most well-known night scene painters is James Abbott MacNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Although he quit painting outdoors in 1864, soon after he began painting his famous series of nocturnes, which were based on careful observation and memory. Originally, he called these paintings "moonlights," but a patron suggested the musical term. Whistler remarked that the term "does so poetically say all that I want it to say and no more than I wish." Today, we label such paintings "nocturnes."

For this article, in addition to Hanson, I interviewed three other plein air painters who enjoy painting the nocturne: Douglas Morgan of California, Cody DeLong of Arizona, and Brian Stewart, also of Minnesota.

By Moonlight (oil, 12×16) by Douglas Morgan

Douglas Morgan says, "Not many artists paint night scenes, but at plein air events, people really like them, especially if you paint a well-known landmark and capture the right feeling." After a long day at such an event, he may push himself to paint at night. He prefers to wait until twilight has passed. "There are people who paint at dusk, but then you’re dealing with changing light." His favorite subjects are restaurants and downtown scenes. "I want a scene with steady light."

Main Street (oil, 10×12) by Douglas Morgan

One mistake first-timers make is to not consider what’s illuminating the scene. Cody DeLong says, "There still has to be some sort of light source, and a direction from that source, subtle though it may be." Hanson couldn’t agree more. "On a night with overcast, no moon or artificial lights, it’s really hard to see anything to paint. To compound that, when you turn on your light to paint by, it eliminates your ability to see anything but darkness. I’ve done this a few times and have decided that it doesn’t make sense to even try."

Last Light Jerome (oil, 11×14) by Cody DeLong

Having enough light to see what you’re doing is a concern. Morgan likes to stand under a street lamp or near a storefront, but the orange cast of the light makes it difficult to mix color accurately. To offset the warm light on his palette, he uses a Petzel Tikka XP headlamp, which emits a cool light. "Even so, the light is hard on your eyes. You lose your focus after awhile." Periodically, he adjusts the headlamp to check his values under different lighting conditions. Still, he says he must take the painting indoors to make final adjustments.

Hanson, who uses a more balanced light (the Naturalamp Full Spectrum Daylight Book Light from Mighty Bright,, says that otherwise, he uses the same equipment he uses in daylight. New equipment and procedures can be a hassle. He recommends, for example, that you don’t take the new easel out for the first time. DeLong agrees: "Night is not the time to add unfamiliar elements. There’s enough to deal with already."

Some artists, however, do change their palettes, because night can have a radically different color key from day. Stewart typically replaces warm blues, such as Ultramarine and Cobalt, with cooler versions such as Prussian and Phthalo. "I also have painted nocturnes with a green feeling like those of Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939), and for these I may use viridian or phthalo green." He prefers to choose color based on how a scene feels rather than how it looks, going for not just green or blue but even sometimes red.

Other artists, who keep their palettes the same, do note a variation in their mixtures. Morgan says that night scenes aren’t as cool as one would think. "Alizarin crimson helps warm things up, especially with a storefront." Hanson says, "I may use more alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, transparent oxide red and viridian because they’re the darkest values on my palette."

Little Church on the Hill (oil, 12×9) by Cody DeLong

DeLong, who finds his mixtures to be generally cooler, notes that value is most important. "If I get the values right, I can tweak the color back in the studio." Under natural light, he notes, the visible value range becomes increasingly narrow as the light fades. Morgan finds getting value accurate is the most difficult, especially in a scene with multiple light sources. He offers the example of a restaurant. "You’ve got a light on the sign out front, then the lights inside, and also ambient light bouncing off the interior walls." Squinting is an important aid in determining the lightest light. "I squint all the time to get those values right."

Success in the field can take a trick or two. Stewart likes to start very early in the morning, before daybreak. "I very carefully lay in the painting’s values and colors, but without worrying too much about finish. Then, when the sun comes up and I can really see what I’m doing, I repaint over the lay-in, being careful not to deviate from the original. I just clean up the drawing and edges and build up the surface quality." He says he’s had good success with this method.

Moon Over Verde Valley (oil, 12×16) by Brian Stewart

Morgan uses a technique that is different from his daytime one. He establishes the dominance of darkness right off. He paints the entire canvas dark with a mixture of ultramarine blue and cadmium red light or alizarin crimson. Next, he places his lightest light, establishing the upper end of the value range. "I work backwards from there. Basically, I’m drawing light on a dark canvas."

Hanson, who sometimes uses canvas for his daytime and studio pieces, prefers at night to use hardboard primed with an absorbent acrylic ground. "I don’t want to worry about surface texture at night. Also, on a dark passage, the texture from linen causes an annoying glare." Beyond that, he paints as he does in the daytime, focusing first on value structure. "The light can be such a dominant part of the scene that it helps establish the scale for the values and colors to come."

Like most plein air painters, the artists take their field work back to the studio, either for final tweaks or to use as a reference for studio pieces.

Porky’s Drive-In (oil, 6×8) by Brian Stewart

Stewart says, "If I know I’m not going to get good technical results outside, I simply rough in the painting." He tries to get color and value right, but doesn’t worry about composition, and he may take a digital photo. "I then go to the studio and immediately paint the piece again on a new canvas of the same size. For me, it’s important that I paint this immediately while the feeling of the scene is still fresh."

One final consideration for nighttime painters is safety. Hanson says, "As painters, we become engrossed in what we’re doing to our possible detriment. During the day, we have good peripheral vision, but that declines at night." He recommends choosing a safe location and painting with others.

But humans aren’t the only danger. Once, while wearing sandals, he was attacked by a mink. "My toes must have looked like tasty morsels. It took a #12 brush deftly aimed to strike in front of his nose before he’d leave me alone."

Friar’s Head Moonlight (pastel, 5×7) by Michael Chesley Johnson

Michael Chesley Johnson, PSA, MPAC, is a frequent contributor to The Artist’s Magazine. He’s the author of Through a Painter’s Brush: A Year on Campobello Island and Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil and Pastel. Michael lives and paints in the American Southwest and the Canadian Maritimes, and he teaches throughout North America. For more information, see

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