Revisiting the Night-
Updated: Nov 29
An essay on the evocative nature of nocturnes- Brian Keeler
The nocturne has long appealed to me, and many other artists as well, as a theme that explores a limited palette but with poetic potential and mystery. Whistler's Nocturnes of the Thames come to mind as wonderfully suggestive expressions. And other 19th century artists like Homer and George Innes come to mind for their memorable and evocative creations of the night or the transitional time of twilight. Sunsets are now often categorized as nocturnes and certainly the American artist George Inness' paintings of dark forests with the setting sunlight streaming through trees have some of the same qualities as the depths of night. I just marveled at one such Innes oil at the Clark Art Institute in Williamston, MA.
I wrote a previous essay on painting the evening scene but wanted to revisit it here, as I just completed a work that takes a new approach to the nocturne. In this view (shown above) of the small fishing village of Stonington, Maine I reversed my usual process. Instead of starting the work out of doors to capture the essence of the scene and then elaborate and develop it in the studio, I instead took a large studio painting and brought it back to the motif for more work.
What did this accomplish or what were my goals? I wanted to correct a few things. Firstly, the photograph that I was using as a reference did not convey the details of certain areas, specifically in the background. But once there on location, I discovered that there were some major annomolies in the structure of the builiding I was portraying. The photograph suggested that the side of the builing had a proturding extension. Once back there looking directly at the subject, I realized there was no such jutting-out part to the exterior. The play of shadows and light must have distorted the facade in the photo.
But, more importantly, I made some changes that did not rely so much on observation- but were related more to taking liberty with the scene. I thought that I had too much detail and too much articulation. In a word, I felt it was overworked. I wanted more mystery. So when I again brought the work back to the studio, I wanted to unify the darks more cohesively. Which is to say, I wanted less detail and less light in the shadow areas. I accomplished this by covering these areas with a scumbled application of thin dark blueish-green. Then I lifted off the color with a rag to bring out the nuance and light. The color scheme becomes an arrangement in blue and gold- and the word "arrangement" again references Whistler's penchant for calling his works of similar terms. The effect is to draw attention to the orchestration and abstraction of a painting. One will recall his painting, "Whistler's Mother" is actually titled "Arrangement in Black and Grey, No. 1." It reminds us that the subject of a painting may take a secondary role to the paint application or the creative composing. Art for art's sake in other words. Another of Whistler's paintings that uses this type of title is a large portrait in the Frick Musuem titled, "Harmony in Pink and Grey- portrait of Lady Meux."
In the background, the photo had not shown information about the builidings and trees. These did not show up as I was sitting there late at night either. So again. I took artistic liberty to include the trees and background buildings. Also, the lighting from the street lights cast a decided, warm dull yellowish hue throughout. But I choose to elimiante this in the shadows and use cooler hues throughout.
I went out of our hotel, The Boice Hotel on Main Street in the middle of the night, around 2 or 3 am to work. Not a soul was about. Only one car stopped briefly in front me, and then peeled out. Incidentally, peeling out has been taken to high art on Deers Isle, (perhaps) as one sees a profusion of peel out marks left in certain spots. They create a snakey pattern of interwoven black abstractions that extend for a hundred yards or so. I digress. The only sound while I painted was the occasional drone of the fog horn in the bay and the intermittent chugging of a refrigeration unit on one of the docks. So the mood of painting under the street light at night added to the feel of the place that I wanted to impart.
"Village Nocturne- Stonington, ME" Oil on linen panel. This painting is in a private collection in Newfield, NY.
Above- The night shift for painting- working around 3 am on this painting of the Harbor Cafe in Stonington, ME. There are two video links below to see the work being painted on location- one at night and the other in the day.
Years ago, while dinning in the restaurant, I met a novelist who had set one of his works in Stonington with the cafe as one of the stages for the action. One can uderstand the appeal. The 19th century building has a lot of charm and suggests many possible narratives.
I noticed quite a few changes in the building I was painting too. As I started this work, perhaps ten years ago, so the builiding has gone through some changes. Some aluminum siding has obscured a minor, but nice architectural detail below a window. Otherwise it retains its charm. Most of the cornices, corbels and verge boards remain. The restaurant cusine has improved markedly. It was very average but charming before. Now, it has undergone some spatial improvements with opening up of the interior. The food is now great but not over-priced. In other words you can still get an amazing Maine breakfast there with blueberries and gourmet entrees in the evening. The lighting used to be glaring fluorescent and now it is subdued and soft and warm. The falling sign that I included in the painting has been fixed and they now there's a new heating system, with units on the outside. Things change.
Above- "October Moonrise- Stonington, ME" Oil on on linen 20" x 40." This oil was begun en plein air while sitting on a rocky outcropping in the bay at Stonignton. It was sold through the Argosy Gallery in Bar Harbor, ME.
I have done several nocturnes, and daytime views of Stonington over the years. Part of the appeal is that it reminds me of my hometown, Wyalusing, PA in significant ways- yet its coastal location in Maine makes it very differnt too. The sky at night is part of the poetic appeal for me. Last year, I sat on the rock outcropping on the bay and painted the rising full moon. I knew it would be coming and where it would likely appear too. So I set myself up there in anticapation of the celestial event. I was not disappointed.
In this recent project, I decided to reduce the chroma or intensity of the sky. Thinking of some of the American western scenes by artist like Frederick Remington or Norman Rockwell and the wonderful paintings of N.C. Wyeth I appreciated their value studies. In other words they did skies in terms of black white often with little or no interjection of color.
To view a video of the nocturne of the Harbor Cafe being worked on (during the day) in Stonington- click on this link to Youtube clip-
Video-The night shift- working under a street light and using the light on a iPhone- this video shows painting being worked on a night.
Learn more about Keeler's Art- and see the finished painting on the website (under New England) category in the gallery on Keeler's website- www.briankeeler.ccom The original oil of the painting of the Habor Inn is available at the North Star Art Gallery in Ithaca, NY.
A Full- Length DVD- art instructional video is available on painting the nocturne. This video was produced by the Artists Network and shows a night view of the inlet in Ithaca- from start to finish.
Working on the Stonignton nocturne oil, but in the day.
Above- A small oil study of study of Stonington, Oil on linen 10" x 20" In a private collection in Lewisburg, PA.