The Master of Moonlight

There is an otherworldly magic in a moonlit scene. We love to paint at night under the moon's steady, cool glow. Perhaps the best known modern painter of moonlight in American art was Frank Tenney Johnson, 1874 – 1939. Johnson studied painting under William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri and John Henry Twachtman in New York. He began his career as an illustrator, painting outdoor scenes for Field and Stream magazine. He soon convinced the editor of Field and Stream to send him west on extensive trips where he would gather the reference materials for his paintings for the magazine. These paintings were so successful that it was not long before he was also illustrating book covers for western novels, notably the Zane Grey books.

Two Figures at Dusk by Frank Tenney Johnson, oil painting.
Two Figures at Dusk by Frank Tenney Johnson, oil painting, 1929.

Johnson loved to paint cowboys and Indians going about their daily lives, especially the Navajo. On an early western trip, Johnson noticed that the Navajo Indians he had been studying preferred to stay indoors during the intense heat of the day and did their traveling and moving around at night. This crucial observation led him to draw and paint the Indians and cowboys who lived and worked in the western night, especially under the bright, clear moonlight. Using canvasses laboriously prepared with chalk and vermilion, and left to dry for up to a year, he developed techniques which allowed him to create stunning nocturne paintings of remarkable depth and color. He quickly realized that nocturnes were a subject that he could make his own.

These remarkable paintings often featured figures lit by moonlight, campfires, kerosene lamps or, as in one painting, a cowboy on a horse lighting a cigarette with a match. It wasn't long before he abandoned commercial work to paint full time and sell his work in the top galleries of the day. Today, these paintings are still considered the archetype for the western nocturne. None exemplifies this better than Two Figures at Dusk. Painting the moonlight takes some reshuffling of the studio schedule to allow for nighttime hours, but it is worth the effort. Adjusting to the limited values and limited colors of the night takes practice, but perhaps no better instruction can be found than that gained from studying the original oil paintings of the "master of the moonlight", Frank Tenney Johnson.

If you'd like to try your hand at painting a nocturne, then you'll need our new eBook (also available in softcover edition), A Primer on Painting Nocturnes. Filled with examples of night paintings, technical tips, night palette colors and a step-by-step demonstration. Only available at: The Artist's Road.

–John and Ann


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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.