Painting a Nocturne Download


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Running time 2:17

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Painting a Nocturne

In February’s instructional video, we are learning to paint the Nocturne from inside the studio, but with helpful reminders of the plein air experience.  When it gets warmer outside, we will do a plein air nocturne, but 20 degrees does not agree with my fingers!

The term Nocturne was actually coined by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  His nocturnes were named in series, as was his musical terms for compositions.  It simply means a composition inspired or evoked by night.  I have found a few helpful hints when painting night scenes.

  1. Paint an indoor night scene with low light.  Don’t turn on your brightest of brightest lights in the studio or your painting will end up darker than you want it to be and probably more colorful than you would like.  We are going for subtlety here and we must tone down our surroundings just a bit to find that.

2.   Just as in other circumstances, warm color comes forward, cooler colors recede – EXCEPT that a night scene is generally cooler than anything you would paint in the day.

3.  Keep your values limited!  You don’t want to use much white in your palette and when you do, it should be to mix a neutral color or lighten a value slightly, and of course in the moon or stars or lights but even then there is generally more color than you realize. It is all about the relationships!

4.  Most times, I tone my canvas with a slightly brown-crimson to create some visual tension  and vibration against the blue/green/greys of the light.  If you are using a light object (i.e. Frank Tenney Johnson and his horses) know that that object will come forward immediately.  The further away from the moon an object gets, the darker the value unless it is an object sitting away from anything around it.

5.  There is a halo of warm, ambient light around the moon with very soft edges and gradual gradation of light.  To make the moon glow, exaggerate the value changes.

6. I find my best nocturnes were all painted in a reductive style – a darker ground and the mediums and lights wiped out before color is introduced.  I have also done many search and destroy paintings with daylight paintings turned into a nocturne i.e. Duet!  They give me the freedom to try different things I would not normally do if I was working on a new piece.

Running time: 2:17



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