How to Paint Nocturnes
A few days from now on Monday, November 14, a supermoon will ascend into the night sky, the second of three supermoons that will appear before the end of the year. (Click here for the Skywatching calendar from National Geographic.) A supermoon comes about when the moon swoops closest to the Earth. Its appearance—when cloud cover doesn’t interfere—is incredibly luminous, full, and as I jokingly described to a friend last night: “Everything a moon should be.”
All this talk of the night sky, of course, makes my thoughts turn to art and, in particular, the painting genre of nocturnes. It is a term that was first applied to musical compositions inspired by the night or meant to be performed during the night. James Abbott McNeill Whistler is credited as the first person to use nocturnes to describe paintings of the selfsame subject, though night, twilit, and moon paintings have been present in both Western and Eastern art for centuries. The light of the moon and the darkness of the night have been used to symbolize romance, religion, danger, wickedness, battle, secrets and salvation.
When I think of nocturnes I often first think of Rembrandt, Turner, and Whistler, but several artists in the American Tonalist movement such as L. Birge Harrison and Leon Dabo took up the subject as well. There are Spanish, French, Dutch, English, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Cambodian, Ukrainian, and Islamic nocturnes. Some of my favorites are from Thomas Dewing, Dwight Tryon, Caspar David Friedrich, and Childe Hassam, and contemporary artists like Alexandra Pacula and Al Gury continue to move the genre forward.
You can find nocturne paintings that are out-of-doors and feature the moon shining, but sometimes the scene is indoors with artificial light, or an evening landscape where the presence of the moon itself is supplanted with more of a gloaming or twilight effect, where light spills across the sky but the source of the glow remains obscured.
Nocturne Painting: It’s in the Details
When you try your hand at nocturne painting, take into consideration these tips on how to paint nocturnes:
By its very nature, a nocturne is going to have strong dark and light contrast. The spotlight effect that is present in many of these genre paintings is often used to heighten the drama of the narrative or literally shine a light on a moment or detail that the artist wants to emphasize. When painting this, be sure—during the sketching stage—to mark where light turns to dark on forms or figures. This transition can be subtle or more sharply turned for a stark look.
The golds, the greens, the pinks, and the purples—the colors that can suffuse the atmosphere of nocturne paintings is one of the most striking characteristics of the genre. When you load your brush, think about first thinning your paint mixture and applying it as more of a stain, then go back in with more dynamic strokes that give your skies texture and volume as well as rich color.
Not Just Open Skies
Take note that while many nocturne paintings feature vast skies that is not the only type of nocturne you can paint. Night scenes of cities and suburbs are equally compelling—and seascapes too!—and all you have to remember is that the light of the moon should glint and glide over surfaces—never too heavily and with enough of an ephemeral feel to give off “moonlight.”
If you are ready to take a step out into the night and want to create your own nocturne painting, look first at how to layout your palette and what colors to use. Oil painter Thomas Van Stein shares his nocturne paletee and insights night paintings. Read it all here…
There are also nocturne cityscapes to discover in the May 2016 issue of The Artist’s Magazine. Alexandra Pacula’s body of work seems to have a pulse of their own as they capture the energy, movement, color, and “go, go, faster, faster” feeling of New York City.
Paul Jackson teaches an exciting watercolor class in his DVD, Nighttime in the City, using the inherent wetness of the medium to recreate rainy city streets that reflect brilliant color and shapes. Mike Barr comes at the genre from the point of the acrylic painter in the rainy city in the evening and has several pointers worth noting that will help you troubleshoot how to paint nocturnes as well.
The Art of Night: Nocturne Favorites from Our Editors (and a Bunch from Me!)
We polled our staff and colleagues and this is a gorgeous round-up of nocturne paintings, both historic and contemporary, that (we believe!) deserve their position as our favorites.
So on Monday night, look up and take in the fulgent glow of your supermoon, and think about turning what you see into your next (or very first) nocturne painting. If nothing else, exploring the diffuse color and ethereal light of the night sky will certainly put you in star-studded company, artistically speaking. Enjoy!