During the summer months, I take groups of students abroad. One of those special treats, which they seem to treasure the most, is painting a night scene. Done in the half-light under a lantern, torch or candle, this is quite a challenge. Some students exclaim that they can’t see anything, but continue to paint furiously anyway. Onlookers and locals find great amusement and enjoyment in watching us. The location for night scenes is crucial as water, the sea or a lake, needs to be close to capture the beautiful reflected explosions of light. The sparkling and glistening shafts from boats, restaurants or harbour lights are vital ingredients in portraying the immediate excitement of the scene. If you know where you will be painting in the evening, visit the location earlier in the day and draw the scene on 140lb watercolour paper. This will help familiarise you with the location, and give you more confidence to tackle the task in the more difficult light of the evening.

Here are some tips to help you paint water and reflections in the dark.

You will need:

  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Ochre
  • Winsor blue
  • Cobalt blue
  • Burnt sienna
  • Violet

Oil pastels

  • Cream
  • Apricot
  • Pink
  • White

White gouache or acrylic
Masking fluid and applicator

Oil pastel
1 Draw the shapes using cream andorange oil pastels.
2 Paint a dark wash of Winsor blue over the oil pastel, allowing the colour to showthrough the wash.

1 Using masking fluid and your applicator, draw shapes with their corresponding reflections.

2 When the shapes are dry, apply a dark wash of Winsor blue. Leave to dry then rub off to expose the light shapes

Mixed media
1 Use masking fluid and oil pastels for the main lighting effects.
2 Paint a graduated wash of yellow watercolour around the shapes to bring a glow to the scene.
3 Then add a wash of Winsor blue.

Simple Effects

Boats on water
The boat shapes are in contrast to their corresponding backgrounds, allowing these tonal effects to have dramatic and attractive effects through the picture.
Paint boats at night
Light shape against dark background and dark against light background
Lights and reflection
This impression of glowing lights is made by painting a dark background of Winsor blue on top of which has been added an assortment of dots and shapes of pastel light.
Light reflections at night


Mountainside Nightlife
Put the techniques that you’ve just learnt into practice by following this simple demonstration. You’ll need the same materials as you used for the techniques’ section.

Step 1

1 Draw the mountain shapes behind the riverside town, using dots and lines of masking fluid.
2 Add oil pastel shapes and shafts for the lights, pulling them well into the depths of the water.

Step 2

1 Mix violet and a little burnt sienna and paint the darker mountain, dropping in areas of ochre for the lighter scenes.
2 While still wet, apply washes of orange and yellow from the light sources into the water areas

Step 3

1 Paint watery cobalt blue against the mountain shapes for the night sky, allowing some of the washes to run softly into each other.

2 Using violet and blue, paint the darker reflections, drawing a more solid base against the harbour’s edge and the water.

3 To complete the picture, apply additional lights and their reflections using oil pastels and white gouache or acrylics.

Mountainside nightlife by Wendy Jelbert

Mountainside Nightlife, mixed media, 6x9in. (15x23cm)