Plein Air Nocturnes: More Alive than the Day

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” –Vincent Van Gogh

Moonrise Road by John Hulsey, plein air painting.
Moonrise Road by John Hulsey, plein air painting.

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)

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Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1874

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!

Please join us on The Artist’s Road for more informative articles, demonstrations, artist interviews and discounts for The Artist’s Road Store.

–John and Ann

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Plein Air Painting Blog
John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

5 thoughts on “Plein Air Nocturnes: More Alive than the Day

  1. Nice picture, but a total lie. At night none of these ambient colors would be seen. In moonlight only a ghostly blue-green light appears. It is beautiful, but most painters hype it up with colors seen only in daylight.

    First – go outside in the light of a full moon and look, really look, at the color. Then paint your picture.

  2. Any tips on painting plein air nocturnes with pastels? Really hard to discern which colors I’m picking up in low light.

  3. I hate to seem arguementative on this but the moon is rather low in the sky and being full in the country side it illuminates everything. But how often do we paint exactly what is there. If one is trying to make it look photo realistic maybe. I suppose it would not hang on your wall but I would hang it on mine.

  4. I agree with 2peepsin1. Changing reality a bit makes paintings interesting. Why do we have to paint EXACTLY what is there in front of us. Don’t get me wrong, I love photo realistic work. It’s quite a challenge to get colors, etc, “right”. It’s also a challenge to get paintings to look real yet surreal (for lack of a better word).

  5. I agree with 2peepsin1. Changing reality a bit makes paintings interesting. Why do we have to paint EXACTLY what is there in front of us. Don’t get me wrong, I love photo realistic work. It’s quite a challenge to get colors, etc, “right”. It’s also a challenge to get paintings to look real yet surreal (for lack of a better word).

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