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The Lure of the Nocturne

Normal people think I'm crazy when I tell them I'm headed out to paint at 9pm at night here in Florida. Truth is, it's 95 degrees in the shade here during the summer and nights are the best time to paint en plein air.

Also, there's a whole new world that opens up when the sun sets. Night changes the values and colors of the landscape; everything becomes low-key, fades into darkness, or coldly-lit by a silvery moon, or warmly lit by a streetlight.

To painters, this is the "call of the wild!" Every artist worth their weight in canvas, has to try their hand at nocturnes!

Nocturnal painting requires patience. You really have to wait until most of the color drains from the sky to begin. That's when your eyes adjust, and the subtle moonlit nuances of the night become clear. Things will change dramatically when the sun sets so there's very little that you can do until then.

I teach a monthly nocturne class that starts at 6pm when the sun is still in the sky. We do two paintings. The first is a sunset. Sunset paintings have to be quick (technically you have about 30 mins) and you have to scramble pretty quickly to get anything recognizable during that brief window.

I demonstrate 3 steps to painting a sunset:

  1. Sketch in the "lay of the land" in the case below, the building shapes, the horizon, etc.

  2. Lay out your palette. Nature gives you an idea of the colors that will happen so you can start laying out or mixing some of those violet-darks, and blue-green buildings.

  3. Wait for the light to be perfect, snap a cell phone picture or freeze it in your mind's eye...Then paint like hell!

Painting the sunset warms you up and gets you ready for the main event. Once you've sketched the scene, and painted it, you have a better idea of the big shapes and architecture. This will make it easier when the sun sets and edges become lost.

Painting the sunset helps you focus your mind, and get your palette ready with some of the colors you will also use after dark. Here's the same scene, just after I finished painting it...

See what I mean about being patient?

Anyway, once you choose to paint the sunset, you have to commit and dive right in. Even if the light changes so dramatically as it did here, save it for the next painting session.

You will also need some special equipment for nocturne painting. I use a headlamp, and keep a light on my palette as well. You can purchase headlamps for about $10 at any hardware store (nothing fancy) and clip on book lights for the palette also inexpensively. Here's artist Sherry Hart modeling her nocturne watercolor set up:

I often look for street lamps to paint under. This is great as long as you live in a place that doesn't have june bugs! You should also wear brighter clothing at night as people may not see you painting. Its better to paint with a friend, or in a group than alone. If I find myself alone, I'll shoot a photo of where I am and send it to my partner so that someone else knows where I am and when I'll be back. Artist Deborah Cooper painting the sunset in oils below:

Nocturnes are night scenes so you need full-on darkness before you really know what you are going to paint. This is a great opportunity to work on black canvas or toned surfaces. I encourage artists to bring a small light-toned canvas for the sunset painting, and a larger dark/warm toned painting for the nocturne. I use Ampersand Pastelbords almost exclusively. The beauty of these boards is that they are reusable. So if I make a painting that isn't up to par (which is about 1 in 4) then I use a wet brush and wash the pastel off the surface of the board and tone it with blue, violet, red or some other dark color. This saves painting time.

When you are set up and ready to paint, take a few minutes to sketch the scene on the canvas or board ahead of time. In this example, I started with a deep blue toned-board and sketched in the structure of Clearwater Causeway. Even if you can't see whole bridge, having the structure sketched in helps you position the lights correctly.

You don't see all the details of the bridge, boats, or buildings at night, only small points of light. The challenge is lining these highlights up in the correct order that your mind "connects the dots" and forms the view in your imagination.

Finished piece "Clearwater Causeway Nocturne" Pastel 12x16

Some tips for painting nocturnes:

  1. Use very little white! There is almost no white in a nocturne. You may use a few dots of white for the brightest lights-instead really look at the light. Is it a warm yellow? Cool blue (like the moon?)

  2. Give the impression of architecture and let there be more "lost and found" edges than a daylit painting.

  3. Look for the half-lit subject that really draws your attention (bicycle chained to a sign, parked car under the street light, or in this case, dimly lit bridge).

  4. Don't paint what you can't see! Leave it to the imagination.

  5. Use color! Look for the reds in the nocturne! Just because it is night, doesn't mean the color is drained from the landscape! Quite the contrary! Full sun tends to bleach out bright colors in daylight, but at night, those colors can shine with a little light.

Want to join me? We are painting this Tuesday night on the beach in Indian Rocks Beach. Here's a link to Beach Art Center to register: 

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