Oil Painter Thomas Van Stein: How to Paint Night Scenes

A Nocturne Painting Palette

Nocturne painting palette

Waning Moon, Spring by Thomas Van Stein, 2005, oil, 24 x 22.

Several years ago California nocturne painting artist Thomas Van Stein taught seven students his process for how to paint night scenes.

Of the many challenges students faced, the most difficult ones seemed to involve value and color: specifically, learning to see values correctly in the dark and properly mixing colors to achieve the subtle nuances of night. Here, we reproduce the handout Van Stein gave participants on his nocturne-painting palette as well as restate some of the main tenets of his instruction on value and color.


Van Stein’s Nocturne Palette

The following oil colors are the ones that the artist recommends for a successful nocturne painting, clockwise from left on the chart:

How to Paint Night Scenes -- Van Stein Nocturne Palette

quinacridone red
alizarin crimson or quinacridone violet
platinum violet
ultramarine blue
cobalt blue
cerulean blue
viridian green
permanent green light
Thalo green
Thalo blue
ivory black
burnt umber
raw umber
burnt sienna
raw sienna or yellow ochre
titanium white
cadmium yellow light
cadmium yellow medium
Hansa yellow or cadmium yellow orange
cadmium orange
cadmium red light
cadmium red dark

Van Stein’s Recommendations for How to Paint Night Scenes

  • “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.”

    How to paint night scenes 2
    Even Tide, Full Moon by Thomas Van Stein, 2006, oil, 16 x 12.
  • “I like to prop a white canvas out in front of my easel as I’mmixing colors to provide a reflective surface to which I can compare my values.”
  • “Make sure your easel is positioned in consistent lighting; if your canvas is in light, make sure your palette is also receiving light, and if your canvas is in shadow, your palette should be in shadow as well.”
  • “When painting at night, use as few artificial lights as possible. I use one Mag-Lite flashlight attached to my hat and two Mighty Bright book lights clipped to my easel. I also neutralize the book lights with a blue gel, which forces me to warm up my palette.”
  • “Because there’s more atmosphere below the moon as it’s rising than there is above it, the light it casts will be brighter, bluer, and cooler as it ascends.”
  • “For nocturnes, I use an underpainting mixture of burnt umber and alizarin crimson that provides a warm complement to the grays, blues, and violets I will be using. You get greater vibration in a nocturne when you juxtapose warm and cool colors as opposed to complementary colors.”
  • “Because paint viewed at night appears lighter and more intense than paint viewed during the day, always mix your palette slightly lighter than what you’re seeing.”

    How to paint night scenes 1
    Whistler Moonrise by Thomas Van Stein, 2006, oil, 16 x 12.
  • “Use very little white when doing a nocturne. If you use white, it should only be to mix a neutral color or slightly heighten a value.”
  • “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 gives it its characteristics.”
  • “Remember, the farther away from the moon you get in the sky, the darker the value.”
  • “There is a warm ‘seat’ around the moon, a halo of ambient light. By exaggerating the dark values surrounding that using a chiaroscuro effect, you can create the illusion that it’s glowing.”

Written by Allison Malafronte.






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One thought on “Oil Painter Thomas Van Stein: How to Paint Night Scenes

  1. I’m not familiar with “platinum violet” and am having a difficult time finding it. Who is the manufacturer? Where can I purchase this stunning color?