Tone Poems of Night
During this time of year we have to give into the somewhat strange urge to celebrate the night. Strange because we often think daylight is the thing to savor, but whether you are a painter or simply love art, take this opportunity to give night a chance.
The best way to do that is to explore nocturnes — paintings of twilight, dusk and night — and relish how magical stars over a snowy field or the warm glow of a fiery sunset against the deepest blue sky can be.
What’s In a Name
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.”
As a Painter
If you are so inspired to try your hand at nocturne painting, there are a few tips to take note of. First, you should give a look to Johannes Vloothuis’ Essentials of Painting Night Scenes — three painting sessions (recorded online for your convenience) in which you will explore the best nocturne palette, strategies for getting the most out of the dark and how to capture the right mood in a nocturne.
From there, here’s what you’ve got to know:
+If you are concerned that you will got lost in all that nighttime, start by painting a well-known landmark. If you choose correctly, it will be well lit at night and gives you a “true north” to stay attuned to.
+Starting out? Wait until twilight has passed. Painting at dusk means you are dealing with changing light, which can be complicated. You want steady light to start so maybe a downtown scene where there are restaurants and storefronts that are lighted.
+Also always ask yourself what is illuminating your scene. You need some sort of light source, and a direction from that source, subtle though it may be. On a night that is overcast, with 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. If that is the situation you face, many experienced painters of nocturnes say it doesn’t even make sense to try.
+Having enough light to see what you’re doing is key. Stand under a street lamp or near a storefront, though bear in mind that the orange cast of the light may make it difficult to mix color accurately. To offset that warm light you can use a headlamp with a bulb that emits a cool light.
+Stick to what you know. Don’t take a new easel out for the first time when painting nocturnes.
Palettes of Night
Some artists, however, do change their palettes, because night can have a radically different color key from day. Many artists replace warm blues, such as Ultramarine and Cobalt, with cooler versions such as Prussian and Phthalo. To create nocturnes with a green feeling like those of Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939), reach for use viridian or phthalo green.
Select colors based on how a scene feels to you rather than how it looks. That can mean green and blue, but also sometimes red and bursts of startling white.
Not Cool So Much As Value
Other artists, who keep their palettes the same, do note a variation in their mixtures. Night scenes aren’t as cool as one would sometimes think. But artists tend to generally make their colors cooler, though it is worth stressing that value is the most important aspect of your colors when nocturning (yup, let’s make it a verb).
With multiple light sources, squint down to determine your lightest light and then go from there.
Night to Day
Some painters counter-intuitively start very early in the morning, before daybreak, to paint their nocturnes. Get the values and colors right and then the sun comes up and you can really see what you’re doing. Then it is just a matter of cleaning up the drawing and edges and build up the surface quality.
You can also establish the dominance of darkness right off. Paint your entire canvas dark with a mixture of ultramarine blue and cadmium red light or alizarin crimson. Next, capture the lightest light, establishing the upper end of the value range. Work back from there, painting light onto a dark canvas.
Painters become engrossed in what they are doing. During the day, you have good peripheral vision, but that declines at night. Always choose a safe location and paint with others.
One artist regaled us with this cautionary tale about a wild mink attacking his toes when he was painting at night and wearing sandals: “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.”
Article contributions from Douglas Morgan, Cody DeLong and Michael Chesley Johnson.