Painting nocturnes en plein air -
"Night Light" by Jake Gaedtke

by Jake Gaedtke

Nocturnes are one of those genres of painting that take a great deal of study and exploration to get them right . . . for me at least. I was living in Colorado during the time I started plein air painting, and nocturnes were a genre I was very interested in.

As I continued my self-imposed lessons in painting nocturnes, I ventured out and around the Boulder County area in the middle of the night. Once I gained confidence and knowledge in my ability, I felt ready to take off for bigger and better areas to paint, so I decided it was time to head up to Rocky Mountain National Park and see what I could do up there.

Because I was apprehensive about being in the mountains at 2:00 in the morning under a full moon and clear skies with no one around, I felt it might be safer to go somewhere a little closer to the road, so I headed to Sprague Lake up a little ways on Bear Lake Road. Once I arrived at the lake, there wasn’t a soul around in the cool night air, and it was as quiet as the night can be.

Painting nocturnes en plein air -
“Dancing in the Moonlight” by Jake Gaedtke

Hitting the trail around the lake with my painting gear and flashlight, I was almost to my destination when all of sudden I heard this loud “kurplunk” in the water about 20 yards out in the lake. It sounded exactly like someone had thrown a large rock in the water. I stopped and yelled out, “Who’s there?” No answer. I couldn’t see or hear anyone.

Cautiously and slowly, I continued on, keeping a close vigil around me. I walked about another 5 yards and again I heard this loud “kurplunk” at about the same spot out in the lake. I stopped and yelled out again, “Who’s there!” Still no answer. Now I started getting a little nervous. So I proceeded again ever so cautiously.

I walked only another few yards or so on the trail, and there it was again. “Kurplunk!” Except this time as I looked out on the lake, to my amazement I saw a beaver swimming about 20 yards off shore following me as he slapped his big ol’ tail hard in the water. “Kurplunk!” Whew. I was relieved. I remembered that beavers will slap their tails in the water to warn off threatening animals and claim their territory.

Painting nocturnes en plein air -
“Harvest Moonrise” by Jake Gaedtke

Feeling relieved there was no threat to me, I carried on down the trail to the location where I wanted to paint. With my flashlight in hand I got myself set up on this nice wooden platform located on the trail to try my hand at my first mountain nocturne painting.

I barely got my painting started when all of a sudden, out of the willow bushes located right behind me, a couple of mallard ducks came flying out, warning me of their take off. “Quack! Quack! Quack!” they screamed as they headed right towards me. I had to duck (no pun intended) to avoid being hit by the low-flying birds as they took off into the night air. Holy cow! It about scared the Titanium White right out of me.

Painting nocturnes en plein air -
“Cassiopeia” by Jake Gaedtke

After collecting myself from that little incident, I continued with my painting. Just when I really started to get into the zone and feeling comfortable, I heard this rustling going on in the huge willow bushes that were scattered behind me. “My gosh! What in the world is that?” I thought nervously.

I stopped painting and looked around with my flashlight to see what was causing the commotion. Could it be a bear? As my light made its way to the culprits, there came a big herd of about 50 or more cow elk and calves making their way out of the willows. They wandered all around me taking their time and feeding as they slowly made their way to the lake and around its shore.

It was absolutely beautiful to watch them in the moonlight. They never bothered me and acted as if I wasn’t even there. Whew, another sigh of relief. I thought to myself, “It’s like Grand Central Station up here. How can I get any work done with all these interruptions?”

Painting nocturnes en plein air -
“Silent Night” by Jake Gaedtke

It was then that I realized this is their time. This is what they do. The night belongs to the creatures of the mountains when there are no humans around to bother them as they feed and carry on with their nightly activities.

Painting nocturnes en plein air -
Artist Jake Gaedtke,

I continued to return to Rocky Mountain National Park to further my lessons in nocturne painting. The more I painted up there in the middle of the night, the more I grew to love the quiet and beauty and the colors. It’s the time of day when most people are sleeping and never get a chance to witness this.

This is the kind of experience that I try to bring into my work. It’s meditative as well as invigorating and a part of nature that I absolutely love and absorb. It makes what I do an adventurous experience that can only come from this exploration.

Do you paint nocturnes on location? If not, what’s holding you back? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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    • Thanks, Lamya. I know I’ve told it a hundred times, but it’s still a good one and so true. Cassiopeia is also still one of my favorites. Thanks again!

  1. Plein-AirPainting… one of the last adventures …specially at night for sure 🙂
    How do you paint at night Jake?… do you have a light for the canvas and palette?

    • Hi Nick,
      I agree that plein air painting at night is quite an adventure.
      I use a typical book light you can get at most book stores. I clip it to the top of my box. It’s a rather cool light so I have to be careful about my temperatures. I also use the moonlight when my back is to it. I turn my book light off and occasionally turn it on to see where my values are and how I’m doing overall. It always surprises me how close I get to the values just using moonlight.

      • hi Jake,
        thanks for your answer!
        Very interesting what you are doing with the light.
        To be honest it’s difficult for me to understand how this lighthandling best would be done.
        When painting in the direct sunlight without an umbrella paintings tend to get too dark in the roomlight when being mounted on a wall later.
        Isn’t it oppositely when painting in that minimal light at fullmoon?… meaning that the paintings tend to get too light?

  2. I am as proud of you, Jake, as if I were your mother, who is looking down saying “Great job, son”. The article is good and the paintings are spectacular! I will certainly cherish this edition of Plein Air.

    • Thank you, Gerri. I appreciate your comment. I know she would be happy with my work. Always good to hear from you. Thank you!

  3. As many times that I’ve heard you tell this story, the visual of you up there in the mountains not only makes me smile, but also reinforces my belief that you’ll do just about anything to get a good painting in! Nocturnes are now one of my favorite genres of yours, too! 👏🏻

    • Thank you, Sweetheart! You know all too well nocturnes are one of my favorite genres too. I’m so glad you enjoy them. xoxoxo

  4. I love the paintings and stories you gave. I have done little nocturne painting as I find it difficult to see my palette and the scene even in the moonlight. I have tried a head lamp but find it too bright. There must be a perfect lamp I can purchase. I live on top of a mountain with big sky and lots of silhouetted trees. It is luscious and I want to paint it. I like your choice of simple blue colors. They could be Prussion or Thalo blues; not sure. Any feedback would be helpful.

  5. As I walk to my barn every night to feef the horses and feral kittens, I look up and sometimes just stop and stare at the beauty of the night sky. I think of how connected I am at that moment, to all of mankind who has ever lived and stared up at that mysterious sight. I have just never figured out a way to balance the lighting situation to paint. Thanks to you and your article, I’m going to give it a shot!

  6. Reminds me of a night in Yosemite Park, photographing an abandoned house. One person walking by the house lighting it up with a camera flash, stumbling & cursing in the dark. 3 of us were taking photos. C heard something behind us. She saw something red. When we finished our exposures, we turned on a flashlight. There were several deer behind us. She was scared of them. I said, the deer won’t hurt us. But if the deer suddenly run, we better run too, because it might be a bear!


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