I’ve just finished my latest painting and this is another nocturne. There is something about nocturnes, the inherent mystery, the moodiness, the almost otherworldly eeriness of a scene illuminated by moonlight. Trying to capture this in a painting is challenging.
I used water soluble oils on canvas. I took my direction for this painting from the works of the famous painter of the American West (and master of the nocturne) Mr. Frank Tenney Johnson, as seen below:
In my opinion Mr. Johnson has no equal when it comes to painting either western scenes or nocturnes. He had an amazing way of painting only the detail that was necessary, with some parts of his paintings left essentially unfinished, or with details rendered by nothing more than a brief scrub of color.
Here is Johnson’s painting The Pony Express.
Notice his attention to detail on this part of his painting...
...while elsewhere just a couple of brushes of color become a rock formation...
...or a mountain .
What captivates me most about Johnson's paintings is the way he renders the moonlit sky.
I couldn’t find much in the way of research regarding Mr. Johnson’s technique except that he would prime his canvas with a slightly reddish tone. In researching other artist’s approach to nocturnes, the recommendation I found helpful was with regard to the underpainting.
Rather than using the complimentary color to the intended overpainting (orange to blue, for example), the recommendation was to think in terms of warm vs. cool; make the underpainting warm so that the cooler color of the finished night sky seems more illuminated. My approach to this was to use dioxine purple at the outer edges blending gradually warmer toward the center for the underpainting — for the sky only. For everything else I used burnt umber mixed with a little ultramarine blue.
I tried to keep my detailed work on the horseman and his train with a minimalistic approach on the nonessential details but I found this to be more difficult than expected as I kept wanting to add details even in non-essential areas. Knowing which areas to keep vague and less detailed takes practice to be sure.
Here are some other nocturne. Notice the different approaches to rendering realistic subjects in moonlight.
Charles Rollo Peters
In researching how we see the world around us under the light of the moon, I’ve learned that moonlight tends to steal color from that which it illuminates. Objects such as flowers which are vibrant with color when lit by direct sunlight become more gray. Landscapes which we would see as green in daylight become gray as well.
Further, if we stare at them long enough (without any artificial light to spoil the effect) that gray landscape will become blue. This explains why so many artists and even film makers resort to using blues or blue greens when depicting moonlit scenes. But why do we perceive as blue that which we are actually seeing as gray? We know the moon is not blue. In fact, we know it is just reflecting, albeit with less intensity, the same sunlight that illuminates everything so brilliantly during the day.
To make things more interesting, try reading a book under moonlight. The page will look bright, but if you stare at the words they will fade away!
The reason for all of this has to do with how our eyes work. Our eyes have two different kinds of cells for detecting light: cones and rods. The cones are stimulated in bright light and are very good at seeing color and details. In dim light cones become less active and the rods more active. The rods, however, are colorblind. Also, the central part of our retina, which we use for reading, is full of cones and has no rods. So at night, when those cones become inactive, we experience a blind spot in that very area of the retina which we use for reading.
This still leaves us with the question of why do we perceive moonlit objects as having a bluish/greenish color? Science simply does not supply a firm answer. I suspect that our brains just take some artistic license by “seeing” blue in moonlight as it attempts to interpret a gray world we normally see as very colorful. A more convincing scientific theory is that rods are not completely colorblind but are slightly sensitive to light in the blue/green end of the spectrum.
For a much more complete explanation of the scientific perspective, please see this article by NASA (its where I found all of my information on how the eye perceives color and I basically lifted the information from there):
Here is another wonderful article about our perception of color in moonlight:
For the present, the Moon continues to keeps it’s secrets!