“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” –Vincent Van Gogh
The Nocturne Artist
Plein air painting at night in bright moonlight is fun and a wonderful learning experience for the outdoor painting artist. With nocturnes, it seems as if we have the world to ourselves. And what a delightful, mysterious world it is!
Painting outside on a pleasant night opens up our senses to the sounds, smells and mystical light that many people rarely bother to notice. Artists have been making night paintings since the early 17th century, and there is no end in sight. This is exactly the impression one gets when looking at a dark landscape at night — no end to it, just ever deeper tones of dark and dusky blues.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler first coined the word “nocturne” for his moonlight paintings. In a letter to his patron, musician Frederick Leyland, Whistler wrote:
“I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me — besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish!” (from James McNeill Whistler: Beyond the Myth by Ronald Anderson and Anne Koval)
Painting at Night Checklist
For the plein air artists wishing to try their hand at nocturne painting, there are some things to keep in mind. Painting by moonlight can be a challenging exercise in value and color discernment. You will need a light source so you can see the palette and canvas, but not so bright that it interferes with your night vision. We’ve tried everything and love our Night-Light Cap.
At first, you may only be able to distinguish four or five values, ranging from the light of the moon to the near black of tree trunks or other objects in the deepest shadows. Try to see and add more values in the middle range to create depth and interest in your composition.
Colors will be grayed and cooled. You’ll find a limited palette works best. Priming your canvas with a warm underpainting will give more contrast and richness to the colors. Work a little lighter than what you see or the painting will likely appear too dark and dull in daylight.
Most of all, enjoy yourself. There is a new world awaiting our exploration every moonlit night of the year. And here’s a link to the Stardate Phases of the Moon Calendar. It helps to know when the full moon is!
–John and Ann