Watch for the Supermoon

How to Paint Nocturnes

Nocturne painting: Moonlight Over a Pond by Birge Harrison.
Moonlight Over a Pond by Birge Harrison.

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.”

Nocturne painting: Fifth Avenue Nocturne by Childe Hassam.
Fifth Avenue Nocturne by Childe Hassam.

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

How to paint nocturnes: The Bridge Nocturne aka Nocturne Queensboro Bridge by J. Alden Weir, 1910.
The Bridge Nocturne aka Nocturne Queensboro Bridge by J. Alden Weir, 1910.

When you try your hand at nocturne painting, take into consideration these tips on how to paint nocturnes:

Dramatic Light

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.

Gasp-worthy Color

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.”


Nocturne Painting: Thomas Van Stein
Palms, Foggy Night by Thomas Van Stein, 2005, oil, 24 x 32.

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…

Nocturne painting: Painting by Alexandra Pacula.
Painting by Alexandra Pacula.

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.

Nocturne painting: Painting by Mike Barr.
Painting by Mike Barr.

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.


Mondaufgang (Moonrise) (1900, oil on canvas), Jan Grzegorz Stanislawski, Belvedere, Vienna
Maureen’s favorite. Mondaufgang (Moonrise) by Jan Grzegorz Stanislawski, 1900, oil on canvas.


Nocturne painting: Yoshiwara by Night by Utagawa Kunisada II.
Yoshiwara by Night by Utagawa Kunisada II.


Nocturne Painting: First Night at the Frogpond by Liz Haywood-Sullivan, pastel on black paper, 26 x 20.
Anne’s Pick. First Night at the Frogpond by Liz Haywood-Sullivan, pastel on black paper, 26 x 20.


Nocturne paintings: Evening at Medfield by George Inness.
Evening at Medfield by George Inness.


starry night by van gogh. pam's fav.
Pam’s fav. Starry Night by Van Gogh.


Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by Whistler. pam's favorite
Pam’s fav, the sequel. Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by Whistler.


The Moon Over a Waterfall by Hiroshige, detail.
The Moon Over a Waterfall by Hiroshige, detail.


Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919) A Waterfall, Moonlight, by 1886 American, Oil on canvas; 56 1/4 x 35 3/4 in. (142.9 x 90.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Eda K. Loeb, 1952 (52.48.2) austin's favorite
Austin’s favorite. A Waterfall, Moonlight by Ralph Albert Blakelock, 1886.

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!














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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.