by Eric Merrell
Moonlight has fascinated artists for centuries. Writers have composed about its romance, artists have painted its mystery, musicians and composers have been moved to produce beautiful passages that evoke those ideas. But while moonlight has been depicted by many painters, it was often done from memory — out of necessity, because it’s hard to see and paint in the dark.
Despite the difficulties involved, artists who choose to paint by moonlight are in good company. Van Gogh, Caspar David Friedrich, Frank Tenney Johnson, Elihu Vedder, Frederic Remington, and Lockwood de Forest are just a few who painted nocturnes. Some painted by candlelight, some tried working in near darkness after memorizing the colors on their palettes, some painted from memory or imagination, while other artists painted an imagined nocturne on location — in the middle of the day.
I’m fascinated by all of these depictions, but the thing that always felt a little off for me was that many of these moonlit scenes seem too “crisp,” too similar to daylight — they didn’t feel like moonlight. When I’m standing in moonlight, especially with no ambient light, it’s very easy to navigate and walk around — individual trees and plants are distinguishable. But details, sharp edges, and the full spectrum of daylight color all disappear. We’re left with softness, unidentifiable forms blurring into other forms, edges that get lost and blur, and a very reduced (though not achromatic) color range.
Contemporary nocturnes often have too broad a value range to truly feel like moonlight — the lightest lights often look like spotlights, not soft moonlight. (Here I’m not addressing nocturnes with multiple light sources, like urban settings, just pure moonlight.) Interestingly, nocturnes are not necessarily super-dark situations either — even a quarter moon has light enough to see some things. A backlit tree at sunset/dusk could easily have a darker value than a purely moonlit situation because the amount of light reaching our eyes from the sky is greater at dusk than after dark. The general value range of a nocturne might be in the range of 80 percent for the darks and the lighter values only slightly lighter.
Technology has helped advance nocturne painting. While artists working in previous centuries were extremely limited in how they could approach painting at night, today we have many different portable lighting options that make it possible to stand outdoors in moonlight and paint what we see. Despite this, painting moonlight on location is still considered something of an impossibility.
Of course, painting at night isn’t easy, but neither is painting during the day. How many tries did it take to come up with something you thought was successful when you started painting? It takes time and preparation to learn the approach. The challenge of painting nocturnes is the same as painting during the day: to paint what you see, not what you think you see. However, what we see at night is much different than what we see during the day, but since humans are diurnal (for the most part), we tend to think of things in terms of daylight. Moonlight can often border on abstraction, but that’s the appeal for me. Everything can’t be explained. Don’t worry about the science behind it. A nocturne shouldn’t be painted in the same way as something painted during the day.
With landscape, it’s fairly easy to allow ourselves to abstract. My self-imposed challenge with these two portraits, painted on location in the moonlight, was two-fold: looking at how the color differed between the two paintings (the first was painted a few days before the full moon in July, the second a month later in August), as well as painting what I could truly see — allowing myself to lose recognizable features or elements of likeness if I couldn’t actually see them. In the self-portrait, the eyes and eye sockets lost most of their detail, so I just tried to paint them as they appeared. In the other one, I could make out cool bluish glints of moonlight reflecting in her eyes, but the shadow on her neck nearly got lost in her hair.
Stand in the dark awhile, let your eyes adjust. You’ll be amazed at what you can see and paint.
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