Let's take a look at some of my favorite night paintings and why they work. I'll also provide some tips for painting the night at the end.
Aert van der Neer, Moonlit Landscape With Bridge
What a stunning depiction of moonlight. Van der Neer contrasted brilliant highlights against stygian blacks. The moonlight gently outlines the objects in the foreground. The moon's reflection in the water is framed by the arch of the bridge. And if you look closely, you'll see a few people on the path, perhaps taking a night stroll.
Aert van der Neer, Night Landscape With a River
Here's another example by van der Neer. He used more color here, with rich blues and tinted yellows. The sky has a wonderful sense of movement and drama about it and the foreground is busy with trees, glimmering water, and a herd of cows. Notice how light determines where our attention is drawn in the painting.
Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night Over the Rhône
“For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh had a unique approach to painting the night. He relied more so on emotion than observation. Instead of blacks and grays, he used a patchwork of vibrant blues and yellows.
Lesser Ury, In Front of the Cafe (Berlin at Night)
Ury painted many street-lit night scenes. In Front of the Cafe (Berlin at Night) is a play between the bright, bustling cafe and the dark, ambiguous street. You can really feel the warmth of the cafe lights. This is the power of color contrast. The right colors in the right spots can do remarkable things.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Nightfall on the Thames
Nightfall on the Thames has a quiet and peaceful feel to it. It reminds me of an early morning fishing trip, with not a person in sight and only the gentle sound of water lapping the shore.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Evening on the Pier
I love the color theme in Evening on the Pier. Pale green light radiates from the top right corner. Warm orange light illuminates the busy street. Silhouettes of people, horses, carriages, boats, and buildings act as dark accents.
Jean-François Millet, Starry Night
In Millet's Starry Night, the foreground is almost completely lost in darkness, allowing us to focus on the stars in the sky (including a few shooting stars). Compare this painting to van Gogh's interpretation of the starry night shown earlier. The great thing about art is that we can look at the same subject and come up with widely different interpretations.
Joseph Mallord William Turner, Fishermen at Sea
Fisherman at Sea is a dramatic painting. Turner pushed the value contrast, rather than his typical vague and whispy ambiance. Sharp contrast like this is known as chiaroscuro. You'll see it used in many Renaissance paintings. The use of light focuses our attention on the drama in the ocean and the brilliant sky. And the scale of the painting makes the boat appear futile against nature's raw and effortless power.
Ivan Aivazovsky, Stormy Sea at Night
Aivazovsky painted in a similar way to Turner's painting, with dramatic contrast and strong focal points. In Stormy Sea at Night, yellow moonlight illuminates the scene and defines the contours and movement of the sea. Notice how the blues are restrained. Under yellow light, vivid blue cannot exist. If you shine a yellow light on a blue object, the object will appear black.
George Inness, Watching the Sun Glow
George Inness' style suited the night. He and the Tonalists focused almost entirely on capturing scenes of moody atmosphere and wispy light. The light in this case is conveyed with relatively dark colors, but it still looks like light due to the dark surroundings. Remember, painting is relative.
George Henry, River Landscape by Moonlight
This is one of my favorite paintings. I've featured it in several other posts, so you might recognize it. It's a simple painting done well. Henry pushed the color, with rich purples and blues contrasted against the vivid yellows and oranges. It's not easy to get away with this much color!
Childe Hassam, Rainy Midnight
Rainy Midnight features a surprisingly light color theme. Instead of using dark colors to represent the night, Hassam used fleeting brushwork, muted colors, and soft contrast. He also used the street lights to make the surroundings appear darker by comparison.
What These Paintings Have in Common
Most of these paintings have three things in common:
- Strong value contrast (brilliant lights against stygian darks).
- Ambigiouty, particularly in the darks.
- Muted colors, with the exception of Vincent van Gogh and George Henry.
Tips for Painting the Night
- Night scenes are tricky in terms of logistics. Painting on location is a challenge as there's no way to clearly see the subject, your paints, and your painting under the same light. And photos are not that effective in capturing dark or subtle colors. So, to effectively paint night scenes, you should draw on numerous sources for inspiration: your observations, any color studies, photos, famous paintings, and your imagination.
- Consider what it is you are trying to convey, and push those ideas. Is it the moonlight? The reflections on the water? The darks? The lights?
- We cannot paint with light itself. The best we can do is create the illusion of light through clever use of color contrast. With night scenes, it's better to err on the side of more contrast than less.
Thanks for Reading!
Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.
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