Along a moonlit Santa Barbara beach this past June, seven artists learned how California nocturne painter Thomas Van Stein employs strong value contrasts, soft edges, and a simplified design to recreate the light of night.
by Allison Malafronte
Thomas Van Stein is not afraid of the dark. In fact, he’s in love with it. For the last 20 years this California nocturne painter has been venturing out into the night while the rest of the world is sleeping to capture the elusive light of night on canvas. Although intrigued by all elements of the nocturnal world, the artist is principally inspired by the moon, and he goes to great lengths to pursue the ambient glow it casts over the landscape he loves. “I guess I don’t sleep as much as some people,” Van Stein confesses. “A spirit of adventure motivates me to stay awake to explore the mystery and wonder I find only in nighttime scenes.” Unlike most nocturne painters, Van Stein paints his nightscapes en plein air, alla prima, adding only the finishing touches in the studio. The artist feels that this aspect of his process allows him to more convincingly record the ephemeral moments of darkness and light of which few are aware.
If few are aware of these nocturnal moments, fewer still seem to have the passion to paint them. “This is not an art for the faint of heart,” Van Stein acknowledges. “Painting at night presents a host of new challenges to the traditional plein air painter, from training one’s eye to see values and shapes correctly in the dark to the physical annoyances of night creatures and fatigue. More than anything, an artist has to have a strong desire to explore the nocturnal world; the challenges of painting in the dark can be overcome.” Fortunately for Van Stein, all seven of the students participating in his moonrise workshop this past June strongly desired to see the night through artistic eyes. And, fortunately for the students, Van Stein was equipped with the experience, enthusiasm, and energy to help them overcome anything that stood in their way.
Van Stein’s, completed sunset
plein air painting sketch.
Arriving on the stretch of Santa Barbara beach adjacent to Stearns Wharf with his plein air equipment in one hand and a gallon of Starbucks in another, Van Stein greeted his students with the warm exuberance for which he has become known. “We’ll be needing plenty of this tonight!” he exclaimed, setting the coffee in front of the artists as they began positioning their easels along the shoreline. Smiling as he surveyed the sky, Van Stein seemed satisfied that tonight’s conditions would indeed be conducive to plein air nocturne painting, and he wasted no time preparing the class for the evening’s events. “This is where the moon is going to be rising,” he said, pointing out over the horizon. “As you set up, start anticipating how its location and light will affect the values, contours, and shapes you are observing in the landscape now.”
Although most of the students were seasoned artists who had painted nocturnes before, some would be painting under the stars for the first time that night and were understandably apprehensive. But Van Stein quickly quieted their fears. “Painting at night is not that different from painting during the day,” he assured them. “You’re still looking for your lightest lights and darkest darks and trying to simplify shapes into compelling designs. The key to painting a successful nocturne is to focus on strong value contrasts while selecting subjects that already have an element of simplicity to them, using as few light sources as possible.”
Stressing the importance of values first, Van Stein told the artists, “When painting at night, you’re working with values that are very close together, so it’s important that you see them correctly from the beginning and simplify your palette before you start.” To help the students do this, Van Stein passed out red-acetate viewfinders and propped a piece of white canvas out in front of them to provide a reflective surface to which they could compare their values. He also made sure the artists’ easels were positioned in consistent lighting, which would greatly affect how they mixed their colors throughout the night. “If your canvas is receiving light, make sure your palette is also receiving light,” he instructed. “If your canvas is in shadow, your palette should be in shadow as well.”
To get the artists thinking about the design of their subject matter, Van Stein started them on a series of sunset thumbnails. “Remember, you’re just warming up now,” he said, positioning his easel toward Stearns Wharf to paint the white sailboats drifting along the horizon. “Start thinking about what you’re going to be painting tonight and use the thumbnails to help you simplify your subject matter into big abstract patterns of positive and negative shapes. As you paint, forget what you’re looking at—forget that it’s a boat or an ocean; just concentrate on its shape.” While working quickly and expertly on his own sunset sketch, Van Stein continued offering advice to his students. “In oil, you should be working dark to light, adding the highlights last,” he reminded them. “Tonight, when you’re doing your nocturne, use very little white. If you use white, it should only be to mix a neutral color or to slightly heighten a value.” Looking out along the pier, Van Stein noticed that the sepia-colored lights on Stearns Wharf were beginning to turn on and announced to the students that it was time to turn on their headlamps and easel lights.
During the transitory moments of twilight, Van Stein familiarized the artists with the light changes that were about to take place in the landscape, as well as how to use their nocturne equipment to best interpret that light. “As the moon ascends and descends in the sky, it will cast light and shadows on the objects below it, just like the sun,” he told the students. “Because there’s more atmosphere below the moon as it rises than there is above it, the light it casts will be brighter, bluer, and cooler as it ascends.”
Per Van Stein’s instruction, the artists came equipped with as few artificial lights as possible to illuminate their canvases, specifically one Mag-Lite flashlight attached to their hats and two Mighty Bright book lights clipped to their easels. “Make sure you angle your headlamp down at 45 degrees to avoid the light bouncing back in your eyes, which can greatly hinder your ability to see values correctly,” Van Stein advised, adding that because the lights will begin to dim after two hours, the students should change their batteries frequently to avoid eye strain. The artist also revealed that he always neutralizes the warm book lights beforehand with a blue gel—which forces him to warm up his palette.
Van Stein arrives on-site with more than just physical illumination, however. According to participant Denise Michelle McIntosh, an apprentice to Van Stein who has been painting moonrises with the artist for more than three years, “Thomas studies the tides and weather, analyzes atmospheric conditions, and tracks meteor showers—-he spends hours preparing to paint a moonrise before he actually goes out on location.” Perhaps it is this, as well as the artist’s education in oceanography, geography, and climatology, and his experience as a pilot, that make Van Stein a truly intuitive nocturne landscape painter. “I fully believe that the more you understand your subject matter before you start painting, the better the painting will flow,” Van Stein says.
As dusk turned to dark, the artists were greeted by the bright brilliance of a full moon rising in the sky. Gazing up at its silvery splendor, they began to understand why Van Stein insists that the only way to accurately record the beauty of night is to be face to face with it. “I could never paint nocturnes solely from the studio,” Van Stein says. “I would miss that physical connection with the nocturnal world that helps me to more realistically interpret its intrigue and mystery.” As Van Stein set up to demonstrate exactly how he translates this inspiration to canvas, some of the artists gathered around him to observe his process, while others worked on painting their own interpretations of the night.
Positioning his easel directly toward the shimmering light the moon was casting over the ocean, Van Stein began his demonstration by applying an underpainting mixture of burnt umber and alizarin crimson to a 12″-x-16″ piece of gessoed Masonite. “Because most of the colors I use to paint tonight will be grays, blues, and violets, this mixture will provide a warmer complement,” he explained. “You get greater vibration in a nocturne when you juxtapose warm and cool colors as opposed to complementary colors.”
Looking out across the ocean, up to the moon, and back to his canvas, Van Stein began mixing his palette while carefully observing the nuances of color across the nightscape. He reminded students that, because paint viewed at night appears lighter and more intense than paint viewed during the day, he always mixes his palette slightly lighter than what he’s seeing. “If you’re not mindful of this,” he warned, “you’ll think you have the right values but, when you view it in daylight, the painting will appear darker and duller.” He also offered the artists a tip for the sometimes difficult task of deciphering values in the dark. “If you’re having trouble getting a color down, use your peripheral vision to look at the value and temperature of the mass next to it because that’s what is giving it its characteristics,” the artist explained. “For instance, if a color isn’t light enough, try putting something darker down beside it first before you make it lighter.”
Van Stein next used a middle value to sketch in his subject, carefully editing the composition into abstract shapes and mentally simplifying forms into approximately five values. Blocking in his darkest darks first, Van Stein worked from general to specific, starting with the large landmasses. During this step, the artist advised the students to use a big brush as long as possible. “I use a size 10 filbert until I get to the moon because it allows me to blend better and get the soft, diffused edges characteristic of night scenes,” he explained.
After the landmasses were in, Van Stein moved to the dark values in the sky, leaving the light section around the moon for last. “I’m comparing the ocean to the foreground to the sky and painting the darkest part of the sky first, using a mixture of ultramarine blue, raw umber, and a little alizarin,” he said. “You want to paint the sky relatively thick. And, as you paint, remember that the farther away you get from the moon in the sky, the darker the value.” Once he was satisfied with his dark values, Van Stein painted in his middle values, explaining that he tries to stay in these middle values as long as possible before moving into areas of greater contrast.
Van Stein blocked in his light values next, painting the moon’s reflection on the ocean while reminding the students that, as the moon rises, its reflection will continue to spread out wider over the water. Helping the artists recreate this light, Van Stein instructed, “Carefully study what the light source is doing to the water below it first. Look at the ocean to the left or right of the path of light and notice how the sky above the horizon is lighter than the ocean and then gets darker as it moves away from the light.”
With the reflected light on the water painted in, only the moon and highlights remained. Starting with the values around the moon, the artist created a chiaroscuro effect by painting in a darker, warmer value around the light source, which he then blended into the darker value below it to create the illusion that it was glowing. When he got to the moon itself, Van Stein just hinted at its spherical shape with a few quick strokes of a burnt umber and white mixture. “It is better to indicate than explain,” he said. “If you work on the moon too much, it will look like you worked on it too much.” He cleaned his brush thoroughly before adding the few highlights he was seeing on the moon and in the landscape, stating, “Everything else you can blend, blend, blend, but when it comes to the highlights on the moon, you have to use a clean brush.”
As Van Stein stepped away from his easel to evaluate his painting, those who had watched him work stared at his canvas, amazed at how effortlessly he was able to recreate the light of night. Laying down his brush, Van Stein walked around the easels to assist his students with their nocturnes, offering inspiration, guidance, and hands-on instruction. Of the many words of encouragement he offered, it seemed his advice to blend was the most consistent. “When in doubt, blend it out,” he said as he arrived at the easel of Filiberto Lomeli, who was reworking his foreground colors to make the moon more pronounced. As Van Stein assisted the student, he told the class, “Remember, it’s not what you put into a painting that makes it work, it’s what you edit out.” Moving to the easel of Cynthia Burt, Van Stein commented, “I really like the intensity of your colors. Keep blending and harmonizing—look for objects that have reflected light; reflected light adds volume to the form.” Stopping by the easel of Rita Schneider, Van Stein saw that the artist was deliberating over her color choice. Picking up the student’s brush, with her permission, Van Stein began looking out in front of the easel to Schneider’s subject and back at the canvas, consistently blending her colors until they morphed into the scene before them. “Right now I am not painting this as a Van Stein,” he explained to the students who had gathered around the student’s easel. “I am trying to get into Rita’s head and think how she would fix this.” After he had offered enough of his expertise to get her back on track, Van Stein handed the student’s brush back to her saying, “Here, you finish it. It’s your painting.”
As midnight approached and the artists’ energy began to wane, they started packing up their equipment, some of them reflecting on their nocturne-painting experience and sharing stories of admiration for their instructor. “Thomas is always challenging his students,” Schneider related. “Even if the weather isn’t perfect or we’re fatigued, we still come out here and paint. He pushes us out of our comfort zones so we can grow artistically.” “At first I was a little hesitant about taking a nocturne workshop,” Burt admitted, “but it turned out to be a wonderful experience. Thomas showed me that, at night, I didn’t have to obsess over the details—I could concentrate on just capturing the moment.” With his infectious energy, encouraging feedback, and tireless dedication, it seemed Van Stein inspired all of his students to capture those rare nocturnal moments, helping them to forever see the night in a different light.
About the Artist
Thomas Van Stein of Carpinteria, California, has been specializing in plein air nocturnes for more than 20 years. He received his bachelor’s degree in illustration, as well as a master’s, from California State University, Northridge, where he also studied oceanography, geography, and climatology to prepare for his landscape-painting career. The artist went on to study at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California, where he trained with artist Dan McCaw. Van Stein next studied with California landscape painter Ovanes Berberian, who was instrumental in helping the artist understand the qualities of light in the landscape. Van Stein has been teaching workshops and art classes through the Santa Barbara City College and the Carnegie Art Museum, in Oxnard, California, for more than 13 years and is a member of the California Art Club, the Santa Barbara Art Association, and The Oak Group, an organization of environmentally conscious plein air artists dedicating to preserving the California landscape. The artist is represented by Waterhouse Gallery, in Santa Barbara; Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, in New York City; and Elder Art, in Charlotte, North Carolina. For more information, visit Van Stein’s website, or contact the artist regarding upcoming workshops.
Allison Malafronte is the associate editor of Workshop.