Gavin Glakas, "Night Falls on 2nd Avenue," Oil on panel, 24" x 36"

Nocturne Thoughts

by Gavin Glakas

I’ve always been a night person and I flirted with being genuinely nocturnal before I had kids. I think that when the sun goes low on the horizon is when things start getting interesting.

Everything seems more intense at night. More exciting. More dangerous. More peaceful. More solitary. More romantic. And on an abstract level, in terms of color and composition, there are so many more possibilities.

During the day, there is basically one light source, whether the sun is shining or not. At night, light is coming from all over the place or from nowhere or both.

In terms of color, I certainly don’t feel confined by the color of the lightbulb that the proprietor put in the sign in the restaurant window. Is it green? Well, maybe it should be purple. Is it warm? Maybe it should be cool. Is it twilight? Can you see a little bit of sunlight? Well, maybe you should be able to see a lot. Is it overcast at 2:00 in the afternoon? Well, maybe it should be overcast at 7:00 in the afternoon, and maybe it’s a little bit bluer and darker and moodier.

The direction of light can do some interesting things as well. During the daytime, the light is coming from above. In the late afternoon, it’s coming from the side and that’s when things start to get intense. At night, it’s often coming from below, and any kid who ever sat in front of a campfire and held a flashlight beneath their chin knows that we have some kind of primal response to light coming from below.

I love that excitement of being alive and awake at night and trying to capture that feeling in a painting.

painting nocturnes - Gavin Glakas, "Soho in the Rain" (detail), Oil on linen, 36" x 72"
Gavin Glakas, “Soho in the Rain” (detail), Oil on linen, 36″ x 72″

I think a nocturne painting has to feel like night. This might mean different things – night might feel ominous and dangerous, sexy and exciting, or still and peaceful. It might exude solitude or camaraderie, motion or stillness, darkness, or maybe overwhelming light.

But I think that perhaps in order to qualify as a nocturne, a work has to have a slightly otherworldly or transportive feeling to it, whatever that feeling may be.

painting nocturnes - Gavin Glakas, "An Appointment in Siena," Oil on panel, 16" x 24"
Gavin Glakas, “An Appointment in Siena,” Oil on panel, 16″ x 24″

When painting nocturnes outside in urban areas, of course, I’ve had all kinds of encounters with humanity, most of them overwhelmingly positive. But it’s the artistic surprises that I really enjoy.

When I was almost finished with my painting “Quiet (The House by the Library),” the people came home and turned on the downstairs light. I had been considering turning on the upstairs light, but it felt so natural, unpredictable, believable, and then warm and brilliant when those downstairs lights went on. It made the painting for me and I would have missed it entirely if I had done it in my studio.

Gavin Glakas, "Quiet (The House by the Library)," Oil on panel, 13" x 16"
Gavin Glakas, “Quiet (The House by the Library),” Oil on panel, 13″ x 16″

Once I had planned to do a painting in downtown Washington, DC and as I was parking, the sky turned greenish yellow and one of those apocalyptic summer storms wreaked absolute havoc. I couldn’t get out of my car so I did a color study in the front seat and, because you can’t just dial up one of those storms, I’m now ready when I decide to do a studio painting of an otherworldly, late-afternoon, Mid-Atlantic summer tempest.

Things happen when you’re painting nocturnes – lights go on and off. Cars and people arrive in unexpected places. Something I didn’t even see will come into focus for 5 seconds and it’s like falling in love – all of a sudden I can’t live without something I didn’t even know existed just a few minutes before.

painting nocturnes
Gavin Glakas, “Nights on P Street,” Oil on panel, 16″ x 24″

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  1. I love the way the author talks about nocturnes because I love painting them. Around my colleagues in Wisconsin I’ve gotten somewhat of a reputation for them! In fact, I won 2nd place in the Cedarburg Plein Air competion overall in 2017 with a nocturne and in 2022 won 1st place in their nocturne category. In 2021 I won 2nd place overall with a nocturne in Waukesha, WI, and in 2022 I won an Honorble mention in New Harmony, IN and 1st place in Waukesha in the nocturne categories. I’ve sold most of those as well! What I like the most about painting nocturnes is the peace and quiet-sometimes staying up past midnight to finish. People say they have the advantage of the light not changing but I’m here to tell you it does! Another hazard is that it becomes more humid. More than once I suddenly realize why my oil paint is acting strange! I’ve used the damp brushes and palette though, to create some very atmospheric effects. I think all plein air painters should try a nocturne at least once!


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