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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.