Night Moves

Some people equate nighttime with spooky movies and storms. But I consider it a creative opportunity. Among other qualities, night obscures distance and detail in the landscape, creates extreme contrasts between dark and light, and almost totally reduces subtlety in colors. At night there can be multiple sudden, unexpected bursts of light and vanishing, fleeting, pulsating light sources. Darkness seems to envelop shadow unless there?s a single light source.

It?s also a challenge to record the excitement, mystery and surprise of darkness?you need a totally different vision and insight from daytime. To capture a location?s detail you can plan and draw it during daylight and then return to the site at night to paint. A more spontaneous and creative approach, however, is to find and sketch or paint your subject at night, capturing it all in one sitting.

Who?s Afraid of the Dark?
These two pieces from my sketchbooks illustrate the possibilities of painting at night. At left, lights on the vehicles from cross-streets provided strong contrasts. At right, the church had some foreground illumination that made it appear even more dramatic against the night sky.

First, a few guidelines for painting or sketching at night:

  • Memorize your palette so you can locate colors in darkness. At night all colors look almost the same except for yellow.
  • If you?re using colored paper, select your color where there?s light so you can choose the appropriate hue.
  • Be prepared for more extreme conditions?mosquitoes, temperature variations, damp night air?than you?d encounter in the daytime. Nighttime slows drying time.
  • Use minimal equipment.
  • Select a location in which you feel safe. If I don?t know an area well, I?ll paint from inside a building or vehicle looking into the dark.

Night sketching and painting gives new insight into everyday experiences. It forces you to work with strong dark values and colors. Because you can?t see detail at night, it helps you to learn to simplify. I feel my night paintings have more drama.

Some hints for night painting:

  • For dark sky or in deep shadow use intense reds, blues, greens and purples?not just black.
  • Reserve space for small special lights early in the work; oranges and yellows are good choices.
  • Even if the night sky appears to be without stars, leave some small holes or light spaces. The large dark area will then appear more dense and luminous.
  • Dark says night, but you must still have some light or white areas to get the effect of night.
  • Don?t worry as much about midtone values at night as you would in the daytime?they?re less important in nighttime renderings.

Erin Nevius is an editorial intern for The Artist’s Magazine

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