En Plein Air: Nocturne-Painting Tips

At some point most plein air painters try their hand at painting at twilight or at night, otherwise known as a nocturne. This can be a fun and challenging way to expand your skills as a landscape painter and force yourself to judge colors and values under drastically different light than what you’re used to. If you have painted nocturnes before, we would love for you to share your stories here as well as any helpful tips you may have for other painters trying this for the first time. The below is an excerpt from a feature article on California landscape painter Thomas Van Stein, which appeared in the fall 2006 issue of Workshop.


  • A hat
  • A headlamp or mini-light to attach to your hat
  • A few book lights to attach to your easel above your canvas (you may need to neutralize this light with a blue gel.)
  • Extra bulbs (the bulbs need to be changed often because they start to dim after about two hours.)
  • Warm clothing
  • Gloves with the fingertips cut off


  • When painting at night values are very close together, so simplify your palette if possible.
  • Choose subject matter that has the greatest degree of value contrast with the simplest compositional elements.
  • Try to use as few artificial light sources as possible so as not to interfere with what you’re naturally observing.
  • Make sure you angle your headlamp down at 45 degrees to avoid light bouncing back into your eyes.
  • Position your easel and palette so that they have consistent lighting: if your canvas is in light make sure your palette is in light. If your canvas is in shadow, make sure your palette is in shadow.
  • When mixing your palette at night, remember to make the colors slightly lighter than what you’re actually seeing because they will appear much duller and darker when viewed in daylight.
  • Use very little white.
  • Because most of the colors you will be painting with at night will be cool, use a warm underpainting to provide greater contrast and luminosity.
  • Use big brushes for better blending and to achieve the soft edges inherent in night scenes.
  • The moon is cooler on top and warmer on the bottom because, as it’s rising, there is more atmosphere below it than there is above it.
  • There is a warm halo of ambient light around the moon. By exaggerating the dark values surrounding that with a chiaroscuro effect, you will create the illusion that the moon is glowing.
  • The farther away from the moon, the darker the sky’s value.
  • As the moon rises, its reflection will spread out wider over the surface beneath it.

Photos this article Bill Dewey Photography, Santa Barbara, California, http://www.wmbdewey.com/profile.asp.


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Plein Air Painting Blog
Allison Malafronte

About Allison Malafronte

Allison Malafronte is the senior editor of American Artist magazines, and the project editor of  Plein Air Painting and Workshop With the Masters magazines. She is also the creative manager of the Weekend With the Masters Workshop & Conference (www.aamastersweekend.com) which was launched in 2009 and is now in its third year. She is author of the Art for Thought column in American Artist magazine (also on the Artist Daily site under The Artist's Life blog) and the 2008-2010 Plein Air blogs on Artist Daily. 

3 thoughts on “En Plein Air: Nocturne-Painting Tips

  1. If you can find a spot with some kind of porch light to illuminate your easel a bit, that can make your experience easier.

    Another spot that might work would be to sit inside your car and affix your canvas board or paper to a foamcore board, leaning it against the steering wheel. This is great when it’s raining or the bugs are bad.

    Will have to try using a book light, as you suggest.

  2. Hi,
    I’ve attended workshops with Thomas Van Stein in the Eastern Sierras and the nocturne painting is wonderful fun! Amazing how free one can become when the senses are limited.

    On the above comment – I find the headlamps are good because they allow your night vision to develop more than if in a lighted situation. I need to step away from even that light to get the values correct.
    Nocturne painting really seems to develop seeing skills.

  3. OK, I need to develop my seeing skills so, I must give this a try.We live in an isolated moutainous area and I have a large back deck,so it is a certainty!
    Thanks for your suggestions.