When the moon gets larger and brighter, get ready to paint nocturnes. The full moon lights up the landscape. Study the light, shadows and values. The patterns of moonlight and shadows are very different from daylight. The sky is not going to necessarily be the lightest light. Shapes and long shadows are soft and mysterious. There are few or no sharp edges. Branches or clouds that overlap the moon may appear to have sharp edges and will probably appear to be darker in value. The darkest dark against the brightest light makes it a convenient center of interest.
Looking at a nightscape is like looking into a dream. The soft dark shapes make an eerie atmosphere. The moon moves and the patterns shift and change. Shadows dance and add to the drama. It is still and intensely quiet. No birds flying. Night is mysterious. Imagination can fill in all sorts of possibilities. A little bit of wind will add to the mystery. Thoughts go to lions, and tigers and bears oh my….
Set up the palette and mute the indoor lights. Colors can be difficult to choose. I grab purples, blues and add a bit of orange or red to warm it up. I’ve seen the full moon so bright that the sky actually looked blue. Patches of cerulean and ultramarine blue.
Wet in wet watercolor works well for nocturnes because there aren’t many sharp edges. This technique helps achieve the soft blurry dreamy quality of a nightscape. Push and pull the paint over the surface to create the dark shapes. Add more pigment to darken them or lift color with a dry brush to lighten an area. Watercolor adds the surprise factor as it often dries with a different quality to the washes than you predicted.
The moon makes a different atmosphere when it is high in the sky than when it is lower. The rising or setting moon appears to be a warmer light. It hides behind the branches of trees and casts long twisted shadows in the snow.
Painting nightscapes in Alaska means that the ground is covered with snow. We don’t get a lot of dark when we don’t have snow. The “White Nights of Summer” will have to be a different blog post that I look forward to writing. I will write that one in June.
Van Gogh painted nocturnes. His “Starry Night” is a favorite of mine. I’ve read that it is one of the most well known paintings in the world. He saw trees dance in the moonlight too. Van Gogh painted two other nocturnes “Starry Night over the Rhone” and ‘Cafe Terrace at Night.” The latter was one of my brothers favorite paintings. It will always be special to me for that reason. He and his wife stayed at a hotel close to that same terrace and sat at that cafe under that beautiful awning when they visited France. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was also intrigued by nightscapes. He painted a series of Nocturnes. Take a look at the nocturne paintings by both of these artists if you want to be inspired.
Nocturnes are more than moonlight. There are also the stars and planets to study. It is fun to discover which lights are planets and learn to recognize the constellations. It’s hard for me to believe that I can see Mars, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter. It makes me feel very small and vulnerable to know those huge planets are right there and I can see them. The immense distances in space is hard for me to comprehend. There are several good iphone applications to help you identify the constellations and planets. I use “Planets”. It collects the data of my location and shows me in 3D what the sky looks like from where I am standing. I can line it up with the moon and easily identify the planets and constellations. It is a new tool for the plein air painter!
I remember Mark, a painter in Denver who painted large oil paintings of constellations thirty years ago. Magnificent images on 4’ x 6’ canvas that he made as accurate as possible. He spent hundreds of hours working with subtle variations of complementary colors and glazes to make the bright lights shimmer and glow with different intensities. Thinking about painting that kind of intense detail makes my head hurt, but I enjoyed looking at his paintings. It was very interesting to listen to him talking about his painting process.
I wish that I had been able to buy one of Marks paintings. I remember a lot of paintings that I wish I had bought. These are the ones that dance in my imagination for years. I would love to be given the task to purchase artwork for someones collection of new and upcoming artists. Wouldn’t that be a delightful job? I would be willing to do that in my spare time, wouldn’t you? I want to encourage others to buy the painting that they are considering. If it dances around in your imagination for days after seeing it, go back and buy it! It will bring you enjoyment for years to come and it will encourage the artist to go back to the easel and PAINT MORE.