Nascent Nocturnes and Lucent Lunar Liaisons
Updated: Feb 23
An essay on the mystery of night scenes by Brian Keeler
The soft edges and the inchoate possibilities hidden in the shadows are part of the allure of painting the night scene, whether it be a moonlit Finger Lakes landscape or a gritty street corner or the fecund feeling tone of scene along the Arno River in Florence or Rome. Inherent in the nocturne is the poetic, as it is when there seems to be a certain invitation to the evocative. The indefinite forms and flickering light are open to suggestions that allow our inner muse free rein.
We can think of many wonderful examples in music and painting that have done just this. I first thought of Whistler’s almost completely nonobjective canvases that were loosely based on the night sky over the Thames River in London with exploding fireworks. These depictions were concurrent with Claude Debussy’s impressionistic compositions. These two taken together elicit the open ended subject of corollaries between musical harmonies and color and composition in painting. Whistler is believed to have emulated musical forms and even the manner in which he modeled his figures is thought to be related to music.
I also think of Leonardo’s paintings. Although I don’t think he ever did a night scene, still his invention of sfumato, the smokey effect of atmosphere and his infinitely soft edges in his figure work is related to nocturnes. His "Mona Lisa" has been called the Goddess of the Lunar Mystery because of the bluish haze and fantastic mountains in the background of this portrait.
We can even include Rembrandt in this grouping too, for some of his historical paintings and Biblical scenes, such as his canvas titled, "Raising of Lazarus." His painting buddy Jan Lievens also did a night version of this same subject, which perhaps outdid Rembrandt’s. This version of Lievens' was shown at the NGA in DC a few years back when they had a retrospective of Lievens’ work. "The Night Watch" of Rembrandt comes to mind for a virtuosic figurative ensemble with dramatic lighting. This work, although titled as a night scene, is actually thought to be an afternoon watch. Still, even Rembrandt’s interior scenes show us how lantern light on figures can present another sub-genre.
American painters and engravers like Edward Hopper and his teacher (for etchings) Martin Lewis both produced wonderful night views of our towns and cities often with figures. We see the pedestrians in their portrayals often with a single street light or the voyeuristic night views into upper story office windows.
And as we are considering the the dark interiors, we have to include some of the masters of tenebrism, Caravaggio, Gerrit Honthorst, Valentin de Boulogne and Georges del Latour. The work of each of these painters shows the high drama, and sometimes ribald life of taverns, and at other times, devotional contemplation is the subject. The first three of these tenbrist painters have been seen in situ in Rome and Florence where they worked and sought their inspirations from the street people.
More directly addressing the nocturne are a few painters that come to mind. For example N.C. Wyeth has several, Grant Wood, Thomas Cole and many others all have created wonderful works with the limited palette.
For myself, I have done quite a few over the years, both as studio paintings based on memory, sketches or photos and plein air versions too. The plein air studies present a special challenge of working in the dark. The obvious solution is to use an easel light and there are some nifty ones now available. There is even an easel made that has its own clamp on lamp designed especially for this purpose. The other method, which I have used often, is to set up near a light source like a street lamp of window. This option is limited to or best found in cities or towns. When painting in Rome and Florence on several occasions I have done just this and there was a memorable occasion on an empty street in a Scottish coastal town too- Plockton, which is near the Isle of Skye.
The palette for nocturnes can be quite open ended or conversely, restricted to an almost monochrome of black, white and halftones. One can really explore the nuances of subtle value changes in the nocturne as there can be so many gradations of tone. Frans Hals was said to have used 27 blacks on his palette for just painting the black hats and capes of sitters for his portraits in Holland in the 17th century. So, if we could take some inspiration from Hals, surely we could explore the possibility for seemingly infinite variations on night hues.
The big picture, the overview and the generalities that us painters often seek to clarify and the large abstract shapes may be more accessible when painting the night scene out of doors. There is the practice in figure painting and portraiture of “squinting down” to take away the detail. It is a very useful practice. The night scene, takes away the detail often or focuses it into the area under the light. So the diffuse and indeterminate nature of the shadows takes away the need to soften our gaze.
Night is often a much needed respite from the glare of the day as the solace of eventide can be anticipated if not soothing. If the intensity of high noon or afternoon light on clear day had no antipode our lives would be diminished. Thank God the Earth turns.
For many of the paintings shown here, I usually make these nocturnes into a study using varieties of cool colors. Blue is often the hue that is the predominant choice here. The timbre that blue evokes is particularly suited for the nocturne. My palette and choma choices are related to illustration, as I certainly take license to invent with the nocturne. I have been paying attention to some of the feedback dropped casually by some, that they may find the choice of hue too much. And they may have a point, so I have been discovering that mixing colors to mitigate and soften the blue has produced results that still bring out the coolness of the night. On the other hand there are literalists that seem to have trouble with any type of invention or the use of arbitrary color. Mixing in black, burnt umber and violets can produce the effect of more subtle coloration. Others seem to love the palette of these nocturnes with the coolness of temperature accentuated. As with all things, the author, composer or the painter is the final voice. There’s a slippery slope between the purple prose and the expression of the authentic vibrant hues that nature presents us with.
Nowadays, in certain painting competitions and exhibits, sunsets are included under the nocturne category. This opens up another wide group, but the evening landscape during and after the sunset certainly is subject worthy of many poetic expressions. The twilight and crepuscular light is wonderful time of day that offers many delights. I think of the author Carlos Casteneda, whose character in his books, Don Juan referred to this transitional time between night and day as the “crack between the worlds.” He was suggesting this time of day is resplendent with potential, mostly for him in regards to the mysticism of the Yaqui Indians.
I will end with this thought on night and a poem by Walt Whitman. This from the Poets.org website.
Midnight is often the witching hour. At this culminating moment in the nocturnal realm, everything must be let go that is associated with day or daylight mind. Rather, the mind is now loosened for reverie and illumination. Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight” (1881) is an incantation that delivers a sense of overpowering spiritual immensity:
Thus is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless, Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done, Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best, Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Video- To view a short vid of painting the nocturne in Scotland a few years ago check out this free Youtube clip. Also if you're interested in a full-length DVD on Painting the Nocturne you may purchase it here at the North Star Art Gallery. This DVD features a view of the Inlet here in Ithaca, and you'll see the entire painting from start to finish. An amazing learning tool. Get yours today!!
FREE- youtube tutorial on painting the night scene in Plockton, Scotland-