"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly
colored than the day." --Vincent
|Moonrise Road by John Hulsey, plein air painting.
Plein air painting at night in bright moonlight is great 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--exactly the impression one gets when looking at a dark landscape at
night--and 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
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 that 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
LED cap. At first, you may only be able to distinguish 4 or 5
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, and 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 webpage. It helps to know when the full moon is!
Please join us on The Artist's
Road for more informative articles, demonstrations and artist interviews.
--John and Ann