© Eric Merrell
Moonlight has fascinated the arts 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 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 the near dark 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 rang a little off for me was that many of these moonlit scenes felt 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 are greatly reduced. We're left with softness, unidentifiable forms blurring into other forms, edges that get lost and blur into the sky, and a very reduced (though not at all achromatic) color range.
Many nocturnes painted today employ too much value contrast - the lightest lights often look like spotlights on canyon walls or trees, not soft moonlight. (Urban settings are obviously going to be different.) Interestingly, nocturnes are often not landscapes shrouded in absolute darkness painted with the darkest pigments; even a quarter moon has light enough to see some things. Instead they're a little lighter, maybe in the range of 80% dark; but the lighter values are only slightly lighter.
(To experience a truly dark landscape, go somewhere far away from light pollution maybe a day or two after a full moon so that it will rise a while after sunset. After the sun goes down but before the moon rises, the landscape is incredibly dark. Once the moon rises, you’ll be surprised how bright its light is.)
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 it 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. Still, the challenge of painting nocturnes is the same as during the day: to paint what you see, not what you think you see. What we see at night is much different than what we see during the day, but since humans are (for the most part) diurnal, we tend to think of things in terms of daylight. Moonlight can often border on abstraction, but that's appealing to 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. I often paint landscapes in moonlight. 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 features or elements of likeness if I couldn't actually see it. 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. If you want to explore nocturnes further, join me for my annual Nocturne Painting Workshop, October 24-25, 2015.