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Nightscapes, How To Create Art, In The Dark

Updated on November 25, 2012

It's The Night, Time To Paint It!

"Tender is the night..

And the benediction of the neon lights..

Tender is the hunter, tender is the night."

Song Lyrics: Jackson Browne

Cool, dark, romantic and mysterious, night scenes beg to be painted in oil, acrylic, pastel and watercolor. Some of the most famous artists in the world were intrigued by the idea of capturing the colors and the feel of the dark. Perhaps it's time for you dear artist, to give it a try as well!

As night approaches and darkness slowly descends across the land, whether city, sea or countryside, to the artist, they all take on spectacular color, igniting a sense of mystery, romance and intrigue. Night paintings tell a sort of automatic story, a tale by default, in their absence of light. If you've never attempted to paint at night hopefully this lens will inspire you to try! The darkness is an intimate moment for the painter, a secret between the canvas and the hand that guides his brush. The scene that you see by day becomes another version of the world by night, and you as a night painter, become a bold explorer into a new seldom discovered world. Edges soften or disappear, color subtle or pin point, sparks excitement. The viewer of a night painting participates in the formation of it's story by immediately wondering who, what why, and more importantly, what will happen next?

Why The Night? - The benefits of painting in the dark

âNight Study â lâInstitut de France, Parisâ Robert Leedy
âNight Study â lâInstitut de France, Parisâ Robert Leedy

"Night is a time of rigor, but also of mercy. There are truths which one can see only when it's dark."

Isaac Bashevis Singer

The foundation of all art is seeing. When you paint in the dark, you gain another perspective, a different way of "seeing." Don't believe me? Tonight go for a drive. Jump in your car and drive down streets you travel normally only during the day. Things you never even knew were there will suddenly jump out at you. Businesses you've never noticed are lit with light, appearing as though for the first time. Trees, bushes, buildings, hidden by vague darkness, become castles, mountains, lakes. To paint the night give you a unique perspective, one you can benefit from as an artist.

To paint when the light fades is a challenge for any artist. You will follow slightly different rules, perhaps use a slightly different color palette. Face your own fears and or expectations of creating something new in low or little light. The end result? You get to not only enrich your technique, but spark your creativity in an unusual way. Plus you'll end up with some lovely paintings, I promise you.

Color And Artifcial Light - Artificial light effects on objects, a quick primer

Night Hawks,
Night Hawks,

"When it is dark enough, you can see the stars." -- Charles Austin Beard

A few words about color:

Obviously, artificial light is does not change as much light in the daytime. Thankfully, it is more controllable. Yellow is the predominate color in the streets thanks to our use of in many towns and cities, yellowish colored street lights that give our neighborhoods that warm glow. They are also responsible for that almost sepia look in many nighttime photographs. These photos almost look as if there is a clear shade of orange that overlays the buildings and surroundings. A night scene with artificial illumination will almost look monochromatic. You may want to take advantage of this by not straying to far outside of your chosen color palette, although that being said, intense spots of color can break up a painting that has become too one flat.

The stronger the light, the more saturated colors will appear. If and where light is less intense colors will fade. Color requirements will always change according to scene and the feel of the scene. By the seaside their may be artificial illumination cast by lights from the dock, city, or the boats themselves, or no artificial illumination at all as in a scene of water moon and sky.

To avoid an overall flatness in your night paintings, especially if you are new to night painting, avoid also the use of black in your paintings, the dark of your scenes has very little to do with black, which is the absence of color. There are many ways to darken your colors without the use of black. That being said however, both Manet AND Renoir used black extensively, so experiment fearlessly!

Artificial Light and Shadows - Geting shadows right!

Night Windows Edward Hopper 1928
Night Windows Edward Hopper 1928

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day." Vincent Van Gogh

Shadows are very important in general and even more at night, so take some time to get them right. During the daytime any shadow you paint will be more defined and strongly contrasted, usually cast in a straight line away from and just under the object and the source of light. This you know, now try to forget that and reprogram your mind to the idea that dark shadows produced by artificial lighting are usually much more distorted, and project radially from the light source. The painting above by Edward Hopper has examples of some of the strongest edged shadows just outside of the windows, you are likely to see, and they are still very diffuse so be gentle! If your night scene has many sources of light, such as several street lights, or other sources of light that cast definite shadows, you may want to include them in the initial drawing or sketch of the scene before you lay down color, as the shadows themselves can become confusing and make your painting difficult to understand later by it's viewers. You may also overlap the forms of shadows with different tones. Shadows are darkened by the use of complimentary colors and should reflect some aspect of the color (a hint) of the object itself which creates interest. Remember shadows do not have to be black or grey. Rich deep blues and violets even reds can also be used depending upon your original palette of course!

How The Heck Do I Start? - I've never even THOUGHT of this before, where to begin?

"New Moon" Parrish Maxfield
"New Moon" Parrish Maxfield

"Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it."

By now you are probably envisioning yourself alone on some dark lonely street which is of course, utterly devoid of life. You see yourself, paintbrush in hand, constantly looking over your shoulder at some noise you are certain you hear and wait.., are those footsteps creeping slowly up behind you..?

Actually that is where I'm picturing you right about now. But it is not recommended that you actually go out into strange neighborhoods alone at night, just yet. Let's get your confidence up a bit first. As a matter of fact the best place to begin to explore the pleasures of painting in the dark, is in of course, your own backyard!

There are plenty of interesting scenes right at home, no need to go beyond your own neighborhood. Think of all the trees, walkways, terraces, and other interesting things that sound you everyday. All these wondrous things you are completely free to paint any time and you probably have been painting them, during the day.. These same places that interest you during the day can also serve at night. Return to these places in the dark. Is there another perspective to render? What do you see in the distance from your porch? From your window? In general, you must make sure there are some sources of artificial light, or a way to set some up. A streetlight, lights from windows, reflecting lights. Hint: You might want to wait to nix a place until you've seen it under the moonlight. After you've rediscovered your own area, set up your paint and go for it. Painting what you already know will give you experience while you are getting comfortable with your equipment, familiar with your night time technique, and help make you confident about working in the dark!

So you've found it, your first night painting subject. Set up your equipment. The most important piece of your set up will be your palette light. Make sure to choose the right light for your paint palette, preferably something with a bendable neck and just light enough to see your colors and what you are mixing. Anything stronger will wash out your paint color and prevent you from seeing your subject. Here are a couple of light suggestions recommended by other night painters.

Petzel Tikka XP headlamp. This lamp will offset a bit, the yellow of surrounding artificial lights because it emits a cool light.

Naturalamp Full Spectrum Daylight Book Light This is a more balanced light and might be the better choice. From Mighty Bright,


When you're ready to boldly go where no man or eh.., artist has gone before, outside of your comfort zone and your neighborhood, read the next bit below entitled: Paint Alone? In the DARK? No WAY! TOO SCARY!

Paint Alone? In the DARK? No WAY! TOO SCARY! - Being safe, or at least FEELING like you are!

"Solstice"  Jennika Bastian
"Solstice" Jennika Bastian

"Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light."

Helen Keller

Just kidding of course you'll be perfectly save, but a little common sense will goes far, so use it!

Avoid painting in places at 3:00 in the morning, watch your watch. Twilight, and before midnight are best.

Leave behind valuables, don't wear jewelry, or carry expensive cameras. Do carry your cell.

Avoid rough neighborhoods. If you wouldn't go there during the day, don't go there at night.

Tell someone where you will be painting for the evening.

Go with a friend or a night painting group.

Paint in vibrant and public areas. Include them in your artwork. People add interest to any composition they say, and at least they'll be around.

And most importantly, if you don't feel safe, MOVE!

These are the most common things to think of before trekking off by yourself into the dark. For more information, here is a Flickr photographers discussion link on shooting safely at night:

Night time safety

Your Official Night Time Equipment List! - Or what to take along

Used Art Supplies
Used Art Supplies

The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. Robert Frost

Here is a basic art supply and equipment list for night painters. It doesn't differ much from your normal daytime equipment with the exception of the type of and the paint color itself.

Shopping List

An Easel or a surface to rest your painting on.

Your paint.

Your brushes


Metal cans/containers 2 or 3

Paper towels

Small stool

Small bendable neck battery operated clip on light (to clip onto your easel)

Don't let the lack of any of these items stop you for going out to paint!

As for the paint colors themselves, it's your choice, there are no preferable methods of deciding color, or hard and fast rules. Some artists do not change out there colors from day to night. Other artists merely darken their regular daytime colors. It's up to you. You may try replacing your warmer blues with cooler ones, such as; Ultramarine and Cobalt, with their cooler cousins, like Prussian and Phthalo. But often, Nightscapes are not as cool as you would think, use the colors that best describes the feel of the scene, warm or cool.

You can find used art supplies here:

Tutorials and Resources - Learning Links

Although Night Painting seems such an obscure thing, there is plenty of information out there, along with tutorials and advice. Here are some links to help you get started.

Painting The Night On Amazon - Plenty to read to get your started!

"Weather forecast for tonight: dark." George Carlin

Unfortunately there does not seem to be to much information in the form of books specific to painting in the dark. Love to hear about it if you know some titles! If you need some in depth advice on equipment, and technique check out "Tutorials." In the meantime, here are a few things from Amazon that you can use as inspiration or study reference. One out of print, that I highly recommend because it actually takes you step by step through the process is: Nightscapes by Jose M Paramon. If you can find it, snap it up!

Featured Night Painting Of The Week!

Featured Night Painting Of The Week!
Featured Night Painting Of The Week!

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    Post Comment

    • sLsM profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      @WildFacesGallery: Mine definitely aren't that good yet, lol! I'm hesitant to post my own for fear of putting people off trying and I'm a firm believer that this is something to try at least once! it's really a cool, unique and strange experience. But I may post one later, just to give an idea. Thanks for commenting! :)

    • WildFacesGallery profile image


      5 years ago from Iowa

      An interesting topic though I would have loved to see some of your night paintings.


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