Thursday, February 26, 2009

How to Paint Nocturns

Painting at night, so called nocturns, can produce some of the most beautiful art work. Colors come out of nowhere are can be wonderful or catastrophic. The best way is to use a headlamp like miners wear. These wrap around your head and cast a light on your palette. The new ones with LED light technology are very good, well balanced. You must also know your color placement by heart in case you can't see well enough to dab the right color paint. A street lamp is sometimes useful but you can't count on it. The painting seen on the right is Carmel mission Nocturn. Sometimes I get up at 4 in the morning and paint so the colors can be very interesting. Good painting is good observation so it is important to capture light bouncing off the ground and close up on the wall toward the right hand side. These strong transitions make for interest and help invite the viewer into the rest of the painting. Notice also the cool greys to the left of the figures. These contrast well with the yellow light. Probably most famous for his nocturns is western cowboy artist Frank Tenny Johnson who blended cool greens and blues over yellow ochre and had drama; perhaps one small window that was cad yellow, the other 99% in cool greens and blues. Orchestrate your paintings to make one simple statement. For other plein air tips, see my friend Ed Terpening who has an excellent blog on all sorts of things in the plein air scene. The nocturn below was painted at Monterey and the pink boat against the green building provided a colorful red green contrast. I painted this about 9pm after dinner and a couple of beers. (Alcohol provided extra courage.) But note how all the boats point into the painting, keeping interest in the middle of the painting. The one in the right hand corner acts as a lead in to the strong light in the upper left corner. The colors are so much fun but the values must hold togther--that is make sense and read correctly. Once that happens, you can place any color you want.
In the example below by Frank Tenney Johnson, cool greys and blue greens are the primary colors. Very subdued yet the figure jumps out in contrast. Using a wash underneath the painting helps with harmony and keeps his value structure in tact such as yellow ochre or ult. blue. Hope this helps. Paint outside and practice. You can also work from memory but it is more difficult.


  1. I don't know how you do it, most of my nocturns are catastrophic! I did paint a decent one at SLO in '07, even though--as you say--I really couldn't read the color on my palette. Had to go by memory.

    Thanks for the tips.

  2. Silvio...Its about time you started to post amigo.

    I was down at the confluence yesterday...going next week again. Hope you can come.