Artists are often drawn to capturing light in their work, more commonly through sunsets or scenes that showcase strong shadows, which naturally enhance daylight. I love the sparkly lights of the city at night. Bridges and buildings lit up at night are beautiful. My GCSE project at school was based on this theme. At school I became fascinated with paintings by Edward Hopper such as Nighthawks, Automat and New York Movie. His use of warm colours to depict artificial lights Illuminated his subjects. Meanwhile, Van Gogh’s depiction of night scenes in paintings such as The Starry Night and Café Terrace at Night was an eye-opener in terms of how marks and strong colours can be exploited to make the painting expressive, impressionistic and colourful.
Malborough Night Café, acrylic, 24x20in (61x51cm).
I was attracted to the cosy warm glow of this scene. I kept a minimal palette, cool colours for the exterior and warm colours for the interior, which reflect on the pavement outside. A very limited amount of white was used in this scene. I opted to showcase the strength of colour and strong contrast to illuminate the lighting in and around the café, while using dark colour tones on the outer edges, which helps to frame it and draw the viewer into the centre. Expressive brushstrokes have also been used.
Why aren’t night scenes more popular
In my own experience of teaching painting, most people initially veer towards subjects that are lit up by day and not by night. During the day, colours are heightened in subjects such as landscapes, street scenes and still life and details are clearer. Painting ‘the dark’ is certainly trickier and requires a bit more thought.
Of course, practicalities also come into play. Painting down a dark street or under a street lamp is definitely not practical or advisable. But capturing the scene is not impossible.
• Your camera is probably your best tool for capturing night scenes
• Be prepared for the unexpected:
I was walking along the seafront one winter evening and noticed a mass of light belly shapes of sanderlings (wading birds) along the water’s edge. In my haste I used my camera phone to capture the scene without realising the flash was on; initially it shocked me and the birds, but they quickly returned and I took a number of photos while they were peacefully huddled along the shoreline, it was a magical moment and the flash on my phone is constantly off now.
• Work with you’ve got: lack of light can mean that photos aren’t incredibly clear but you should have enough information to be creative with.
• Plan: Gather photo references – there are many light festivals and times of the year when lighting becomes an art in itself, so plan to take advantage of these events, as some only come around once a year.
• Photographing at night is difficult and you may not always capture what you want, so make mental or written notes on colours, atmosphere etc, anything which you can use at a later stage in your painting.
• If you don’t want to go outside, consider interior scenes. Play around with different light sources or set up a still life under interesting lighting conditions.
• Mixing and matching colours might prove problematic in the dark; my solution would be to paint a night scene during the day.
• Look at other artists and how they portray the subject
Really look and see how lights feature in the environment. Whether you are in a town or more rural areas, lights will feature somehow. Observe how they reflect off people, buildings and trees, at how different those things appear at night compared to how they look in daylight. Look at whether the lights are hard and glaring or soft and colourful. If you are in a rural area overlooking a town from a distance, you can see the halo of light surrounding the area. Take notice of the moon and how it illuminates the sky, creating a halo of its own. Look at interiors too, how they look from the outside at night – a cosy restaurant surrounded by the darkness with warm glows of light always look inviting.
Once you have made your observations, make some decisions on what appeals to you the most. People are attracted to subjects that make the process enjoyable. Don’t shy away from night scenes as the challenge is really worth it, you will realise just how much colour actually gets used once you start painting.
I don’t have any black in my palette for night scenes and my white hardly gets used at all. All dark and light colour paints are used as neat as possible to get the richness from the paint. Artist-quality paint has a higher pigment content so is better for light colours such as reds, oranges and yellows; when applied over dark colours, they are opaque enough to dominate the dark colour underneath. Alternatively, a little white can be used to make light colours a bit more opaque. Note that too much white mixed in with light colours can dull them.
When confronted with a busy complicated scene, my initial response is to break things down into simple shapes and colour, identifying warm and cool colours present in the scene. Unless you are painting in black and white, painting a night scene is the closest you will come to using your darkest and lightest colours together in their purest form. You need your darkest colours to enhance your lightest colours and vice versa. One of the main pitfalls of using dark and light colours together is that they can become muddy if mixed and what’s key to creating the glow that artificial lights have is to keep your colours clean. Ways to do this are:
• Keep two separate palettes and mixing trays, one for warm colours such as reds, yellows and oranges including white, and one palette for the cooler colours – blues, greens, purple and so on.
• Use separate mixing trays for the warm and cool colours also.
• It might also be helpful to keep separate brushes for dark and light colours. Note that brushes should also be just damp and not flooded with water as this will wash away colour pigment and create muddy mixes, which is the main thing to avoid when painting a night scene.
DEMONSTRATION London by Night
I’ve chosen to paint this London night scene – there is a lovely variety of stark lights in pretty colours. Capturing the glow that artificial lights create at night is key.