Saturday, February 9, 2013

Painting a Nocturne from Daytime Photos

"Konza Prairie by Moonlight" 14 x 18, oil on canvas.
   I recently spent a cold afternoon photographing the Flint Hills for painting reference. The most dramatic region I've found is along I-70 between Topeka and Manhattan, Kansas. There are some big vistas and surprisingly few trees. My search took me down gravel roads with names like "Deep Creek" and "Old K-18." In the dead of winter and without snow, all the color seems drained out of the landscape. Everything is warm gray in the foreground and cool gray in the distance. I was hoping the golden hour before sunset would saturate things a bit and it helped but only a little.

My photo reference. Note how I have also changed the composition.
   When I got home and went over my photos, there really wasn't anything that inspired me. Then I imagined what that barren world would look like under a full moon. I have painted a lot of nocturnes both from life and in the studio and have also heard of artists painting nocturnes from daytime scenes. It seemed like a worthy challenge. 

Nocturne by Frank Tenney Johnson
 There is a long tradition of nocturnes in western art, going back to masters Frederick Remington, C. M. Russell and Frank Tenney Johnson. Carrying on the tradition are contemporary artists  Bill Anton, Phil Starke, Michael Untiedt and others. I poured over their work for tips on how to get the effect of moonlight. I also went to a remote location and let my eyes adjust for about 15 minutes. I made a serious effort to note what color temperatures and values I was seeing. The truth is there is very little color but I was able to discern that the sky was cooler and the midtones in the foreground were warmer. Still all highlights registered as cool. With my photo, art reference and observation notes, I felt ready to start painting. The biggest challenge was that I had never done a painting with such a narrow value and spectrum range. It's amazing what you can do even with such constraints and the amount of mood that is created. Also I'm convinced there is no absolute right way to paint a nocturne. It's up to each artist to interpret their impression of a scene. I'm pleased with how this one turned out.

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