Plein Air Nocturnes: More Alive Than the Day

28 Aug 2012

"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.
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 Anne Koval).

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

 

 

 

 

 


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Comments

john124145 wrote
on 1 Sep 2012 8:32 AM

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.

LamyaD wrote
on 1 Sep 2012 12:16 PM

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

Eric P. wrote
on 1 Sep 2012 4:09 PM

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.

kristinsande wrote
on 5 Sep 2012 3:10 PM

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).

kristinsande wrote
on 5 Sep 2012 3:12 PM

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).