Updated: Nov 19, 2020
by Robert E. Wood
During these short winter days here in Canada, there is one thing we have a lot of: night. Oddly, not a lot of artists paint nocturnal paintings. I learned to paint nocturne's from artist Harold Lyon, for whom night scenes have been a significant subject for more than four decades. Regardless if you're painting a landscape, a western cowboy and horses, or a romantic scene of lovers under the stars, the reflected light from the sun, bouncing off the moon and illuminating our nights creates an alluring image... Here are some of the things I know about painting moonlit scenes:
1. The best nights to paint are brightly lit by a full moon (or close to it), providing artists with the contrasts of light and shadow (and reflecting lights bouncing around in the shadows!), which make for the most dynamic paintings.
2. Tone value range is more limited in moonlight than it is in sunlight. The brightest lights will always be a couple values down from white.
3. Moonlight is much cooler than sunlight, often lending a blue or silvery-green hue to everything in your scene (unless it's impacted by another artificial light source, such as light from a building, a campfire, or streetlights).
4. A perfect colour mixture to match the range of blues in a nocturne is made by combining Pthalo Turquoise (from Rembrandt, or – alternatively – “Turquoise” from M. Graham, which is a very similar colour but a bit more Blue than Green) and Alizarin Crimson, and then modifying the tone value with white.
5. The more elusive silvery-green range can be found by mixing the same two colours – Pthalo Turquoise and Alizarin Crimson – with Cadmium Yellow Deep. Again, modify this mixture with white to get the right tone values. You will notice that these three colours are a triad on the colour wheel, representing Blue-Green, Red-Purple, and Yellow-Orange.
Here is a colour chart I've made illustrating the colour mixtures I've given you in points 4 and 5, along with a couple quick sketches to demonstrate their diversity, without the addition of any other colours.
6. Look for opportunities to use your complements: For example, if the scene has a lot of Blue-Green in it, look for hints of Red-Orange (or places where you can use your artistic license to add in the appropriate complementary colours). These complements can be subtle: they don't need to necessarily be obvious, or shout. They can be elusive whispers, and still impact the eye of the viewer.
7. Red is probably the most under-used colour on many artists' palettes, and the most frequently overlooked, but once you start looking for it you'll find it's amazing how much red there is in almost everything (in both sunlight and moonlight). When we consider the three primary colours, Yellow is warm, Blue is cool, and Red is a modifier. Red will make warm colours cooler, and cool colours warmer. The trick is in using the right red at the right time. A good general rule is to use bright warm reds like Cadmium Reds in daytime scenes, and cooler reds like Alizarin and Caput Mortuum Violet (another Rembrandt brand colour) in nighttime scenes, but as with all rules there will be times to break it!
8. Just as with daytime scenes, the general rule for nocturne's is that warm colours come forward, while cool colours recede. There are times when this rule is broken, so when in doubt trust what you see; not what you think.
9. To create the glow on the sky's horizon in a nocturne (as you might see shortly after the sun has set, or a little while before it rises again), mix some of the silvery-green (perhaps the third or fourth tone from the top on my accompanying colour chart) into the bottom of the sky.
10. The lightest whites will always be closest to you, and in a night scene will quickly recede down the tone value scale as they get further away. Light tone value elements in your painting (like snow, pale sand, or white buildings) will also be heavily influenced by the silvery-green colour cast from the moonlight.
11. Artists who want to paint nocturne's en plein air can invest in a head-lamp in order to see your palette more clearly. Alternatively, spend some time outside just studying the light on a bright moonlit night, then use that acquired visual information to work in your studio with the colour knowledge in this article and your own creative talents.
Bonus Tip: Quite often a good daylight photograph can be painted as a nocturne by swapping the sunlight colour scheme for that of moonlight.
Here are some nocturne paintings by different artists, and a couple comments on each:
In this painting, “Moonlight Rendezvous”, by Bill Sawczuk note the predominance of the Blue-Green colour range, and then notice that the brown horses are actually a Red-Orange: the perfect subtle colour complement! Also, note the Yellow-Orange glow cast from the cabin window (and to a lesser extent, from the stars).
Here artist Merlin Enabnit has used the basic Blue-Green moonlight tones with a very bold Red-Orange complement. He's also pushed the light tone values almost all the way to white; I doubt the light on the snow was as light as this, but it makes for a dynamic painting! While the other paintings illustrated here feature quite soft edges (as you might expect with the low light of night), Enabnit's palette knife technique gives sharper edges, but also some exciting texture to his paint application.
Artist Ovanes Berberian in his painting “Moonlight Night” gives us a clear break-down of the triadic colour scheme I utilize in my moonlight colour mixtures: Blue-Green (Pthalo Turquoise), Red-Purple (Alizarin Crimson), and Yellow-Orange (Cadmium Yellow Deep).
Matt Smith's “Catalina Nocturne” again shows the subtle silver-greens, along with a blue range very similar to the other artists (if a bit more subdued: when you look at the sky you'll see he's modified the colour with more red), and some nice quiet complements in the Red-Orange range (look at the ground and trees – you'll see the complements). Smith's beautiful glowing stars are also a pale Yellow-Orange.
“Winter Night”, by Robert E. Wood. I had fun with this little 8x10, combining brush and palette knife techniques for a variety of textures. You can see the colour mixtures I outlined in this article, as well as bolder areas of the triadic colour scheme. The bumpy/lumpy texture of the snow lying on the ground allowed me to incorporate a wide range of colour temperature and tonal variations. The appeal of this painting is that it is spontaneous and loose, and I've deliberately played up the colours. If I was to critique this painting I'd say the mid-ground hill is probably too warm, and yet I feel it works in the painting as a whole.