Visual Thinking

Recently a friend of mine who is a writer said to me “writing is thinking.” What she meant is that as we write we often discover the internal structure of what was previously a collection of random ideas and as a result locate the real intention of our work through the act of doing it.

The same can be said for drawing- particularly certain types of drawing. Specifically I am thinking about thumbnails. Thumbnails are visual thinking. They are the place to work out visual ideas, to search for and find the structure of a painting. As such, we must invest enough time in them to explore the idea, but not so much time that we try to turn it into a perfect little drawing, and thus limit the time we have to look around for other ways to express the idea.

Thumbs are thinking visually. That’s all. They are like first drafts of your painting- those first steps toward finding the right structure for your visual idea. If there is only one thing you carry away from this class and incorporate into your process, this should be it!

Here are some thumbs from a small sketchbook I often carry with me on walks. It is 5 x7 (important only for understanding the small scale of these thumbs). They certainly are not great drawings and some are not especially good designs. A few of them have since become paintings. One of them  became a monoprint. In most of them I have seriously limited the shapes and values – trying to get down to something essential. A few are more developed. Some are abandoned – a trail I didn’t follow because I lost interest or got a better idea while I was working.

Once you get in the habit of recording and working out your visual ideas this way, it becomes automatic and your sketchbook becomes a rich repository of ideas that you can use (together with memory and imagination) for years to come.

A painting on the wall

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A picture containing building, person, skating, man

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A picture containing outdoor

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A picture containing text, book, building

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A picture containing ground, building

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P.S. Our six week online class Drawing the Landscape is designed to give you the tools to draw and sketch in the field and studio with confidence, both improving your plein air paintings and leading to better, finished work in the studio. Join us!

Why Draw?

Ivan Shishkin
Ivan Shishkin

Why Draw?

Often  landscape painters don’t think drawing is important. I am always amazed in my workshops and classes at the number of students who do not regularly use a sketchbook or include drawing as part of their art making process.

 

Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan

I was fortunate that the first artist I seriously studied with- Ned Jacob- is a fine draughtsman of figures, animals and the landscape. He is passionate about the importance of drawing. One of the most important things he said to me over the many years I studied with him was: Drawing will set you free. He never really explained what that meant, but over time I figured it out. So, now I am telling you: Drawing will set you free.

OK, that may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true. And, it’s true for several different reasons. Here they are.
First, drawing encourages observation- not casual looking, but concentrated, analytical observation. It slows you down. Its economy of means and materials allow for this to occur at almost any time and when time is short and effects fleeting.

When drawing, we are more likely to zero in on the one thing that first caught our notice, and less likely to try to capture everything out there (which often happens when painting).

Drawing, particularly mass drawing, is a bridge to painting- forcing us to focus on shape and value, without having to tackle color.

Deborah Paris Stream Study
Deborah Paris
Stream Study

Drawing, specifically, thumbnail sketches, can be an enormous aid to not only learning to compose but to trying out different compositional solutions before investing lots of time and painting materials in a bad one.

Drawing encourages intimate understanding of the structure of objects in the landscape as well as their surface appearance.  This knowledge will inform your efforts and make your work more authentic.

 

Tree Study Deborah Paris
Tree Study
Deborah Paris

But, perhaps the most important reason is that you cannot ever become a good landscape painter without being able to edit the raw material nature provides. If you are dependent on either what’s in front of you or a photographic reference, your options are always limited.

Deborah Paris
Deborah Paris

Editing means not only leaving things out, but moving them around, redesigning how they are shaped, in what part of the picture plane they are found, moving the viewer’s location, adding elements that support your visual idea but are not actually in the scene before you, and painting from memory and imagination. Drawing can give you the skills to do those things- the freedom to take the raw material nature provides and design works of art.
And, a long the way, you find that drawing itself is a great pleasure.  Drawing sets you free.

 

P.S. Our six week online class Drawing the Landscape is designed to introduce students to methods, materials, concepts (like linear perspective and comparative measurement), and strategies for successfully completing drawings from Nature both for their own sake and as invaluable reference for painting, reducing dependency on photography. There will be some art history thrown in to demonstrate the long and glorious tradition of drawing from Nature and some video demos to supplement the thorough written materials, illustrations and examples. Class starts March 13th! Join us!

Go First To Nature

Spring will soon be here and the plein air season will stretch out before us with tantalizing visions of days spent in the field painting nature. Unfortunately for many, the reality never quite matches up to our hopes and expectations. We come home tired, frustrated and disappointed in the day’s efforts. Why? Because painting outdoors is one of the hardest things you will ever try to do as an artist! So for the inexperienced or even intermediate painter, it is a real struggle. It’s like your first day in medical school and your professor says “Alrighty then, let’s start with brain surgery!”

This is not to say that working before nature should wait. On the contrary, we must go often to nature from the very outset of our training. But, how we approach nature and how we learn to paint sur le motif involves much more than buying a pochade box.

Rembrandt
Rembrandt

Below is my favorite quote about drawing and about how we should approach nature as artists. Asher B. Durand was among the first generation of Hudson River School artists, the first truly American group of landscape painters. Although they were, of course, influenced by European art and traditions, they understood that they had to forge a new relationship with nature in the New World. I like to think of all landscape painters that way – we must all find our way, our own way, to nature and how we want to depict her. Drawing is the first step. Drawing sets you free.

“Go first to Nature to learn to paint landscape…take pencil and paper, not the palette and brushes, and draw with scrupulous fidelity…I know you will regard this at first thought as an unnecessary restriction, and become impatient to use the brush, under the persuasion that you can with it make out your forms, and at the same time produce colour, and light and shade. In this you deceive yourself, as many others have done, till the evil has become irremediable; for slovenly and imperfect drawing finds but a miserable compensation in the evident efforts to disguise or atone for it, by the blandishments of color and effect.

Asher B. Durand, Letters on Landscape,1855.

Asher B. Durand
Asher B. Durand

Ah, you have to love that language!…”till the evil has become irremediable”!

Van Gogh
Van Gogh

Durand’s advice was based on literally centuries of working methods developed by landscape painters in Europe and later America. Drawing was and should be a critical part of not only the training of landscape painters but our first efforts to work directly from nature. As Durand notes elsewhere in Letters On Landscape, two things result from this method: we learn about our subject in a deeper more intimate way and we enhance the technical skills we need to make a success of our outdoor efforts. Working first with line and tone (value) and then moving on to color allows us to build a skill set incrementally rather than feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of nature and how to depict it.

Ivan Shishkin
Ivan Shishkin
Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan

The greatest landscape painters throughout art history have always known this. It’s only in the last century or so that we begin to think it was unnecessary to actually learn how to draw instead of just pushing a button on a camera!

John Constable
John Constable
Rousseau
Rousseau

As importantly, eventually this work will serve as reference material for our finished work in the studio. Drawings and color studies provide a storehouse of information upon which we can much more reliably depend than a bad photograph (or even a good one!). Observation becomes one of our most valued methods and provides new insights for our work each time we venture out in nature. Instead of the pressure to “get a painting”, we can slow down, observe and experience. Remember, drawing sets you free.

P.S. Our annual six week Drawing the Landscape online class is designed for all artists who want to improve their landscape drawing skills. Explore various drawing mediums and learn techniques in using line, value, shading, perspective and much more. Learn how to use drawing as an integral part of your artistic process as a landscape painter. Class starts March 13th! Join us!

Where To Look for Shifts in Color Temperature

So, now we know that color temperature is an important attribute of color, and that seeing and painting those shifts will add quality to our paintings. But, where do we look for them?

Over the many years that I studied with Ned Jacob, he rarely answered my questions directly. Usually, he would say enigmatic things like “know where the violet lives”.  Catchy, huh? But, not helpful. So, I plan to tell you exactly where to look for color temperature changes.

Color temperature in landscape painting is most often a product of the color of the light and/or surrounding local color. The light is either warm (directly affected by sunlight) or cool (directly affected by the cool sky color). Both of these things will occur in the same scene. So your job is to know where the light is warm and where it is cool.

One simple thing to remember is “it’s warm in there”, meaning that the interiors of things and the undersides of things – under trees, interiors of foliage masses, cracks and crevices in rocks, and things like that will typically hold some warm reflected light.

Here is a dramatic example of that. This painting by the Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) shows how the warm light of the sand is reflected up onto the belly  and the inside of the leg of the white horse. The cool light of the sky cools the temperature of the boy’s chest in shadow, and also cools the color on the horse’s back in light. A masterful orchestration of color temperature! Click for larger view.

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Just for fun, here is a photo of the man himself painting that huge canvas on a beach in Spain.

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But, we don’t need to have a big white horse in our painting to see and paint color temperature changes. Here is a beautiful painting by Russian painter Isaac Levitan which also demonstrates these ideas, albeit with more subtlety. Click for larger view.

levitan tree 72 dpi

Here the sun strikes the tree from the front left. The foliage in the upper areas of the tree is cooler, influenced by the cool light of the sky. The light struck areas are of course warm. But, so is the lower foliage and interior areas behind the tree, as a result of warm light bouncing up from the ground plane.

Here is another example from Ivan Shishkin, my other favorite Russian. The interior of this wood is warm! You might be tempted to paint that cooler, to make it go back, but you would be wrong. It would come charging toward you. But, with that nice warm color in there it recedes. The trees on the exterior of the woods are cooler, affected by the cool light of the sky, especially on the right side.

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Another place to look for temperature changes is in shadows. Form shadows tend to be warmer and cast shadows cooler. In a cast shadow you will find more warmth closer to the object casting the shadow and cooler as it moves away and is more affected by the cool light of the sky.

Here is an example by Maynard Dixon, iconic painter of the American West. Click for larger view. See that shadow on the ground cast by the horse? There is warm reflected light in the shadow from the horse and cool reflected light from the sky.

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So be on the lookout for places in the landscape that hold color temperature shifts. See them and paint them!

P.S.  Our online class Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters I  starts this Friday January 31. Crack the secrets of value, hue, chroma and color temperature! Join us!

It’s Warm In There! – Lessons on Color Temperature

One sunny, breezy day over twenty five years ago, I was painting boats at a picturesque harbor on the Maine coast with my teacher and mentor Ned Jacob. There is some sort of special hell reserved for artists painting boats, especially boats that are moving. bobbing up and down and generally not staying still! But, on this day, it wasn’t drawing that had me totally flummoxed. I was painting a white fishing boat moored nearby and felt I had a pretty good drawing of the structure. But, as I tried to paint the interior of the cabin, which was in shadow, I could not make it look right. It looked like a flat piece of paint rather than an area receding away from the outside of the boat. I had a nice pile of grey paint that looked like the right value for the shadow. Ned looked over my shoulder and said “It’s warm in there.” Then he picked up a speck of cad orange with his brush, dropped it in my grey and applied it to the canvas in one deft stroke. It went back, it had “air”, it was warm in there! It was my first lesson in color temperature and I never forgot it.

Color temperature seems like it ought to be a really easy concept, but in my experience it is both hard to understand and, for the inexperienced, even harder to see and therefore to paint. One thing I learned from Ned was where to look for it- where and how to identify places that might hold a color temperature change. Once I knew where to look, then I saw it everywhere!

It was several years later when I read that well known adage “break temperature not value” in Birge Harrison’s book Landscape Painting. It took a while to understand how color temperature and value can be used together to create not only solidity of forms with an economy of values, but will also be the most effective combination to produce the illusion of light and atmosphere in the landscape. Although you can depict it with well organized values only (convert master paintings to greyscale if you doubt that!), the combination of an economical value structure with strategic color temperature shifts will positively make a painting sing!

Here is a painting by American artist Clark Hulings (1922-2011) that illustrates this point. Notice the color of the wall in shadow. The cooler color above is influenced by the sky while the warmer color in the lower part of the wall partakes of the reflected color from the ground. Both the warm and cool notes within the shadow are different temperatures, but the same value!

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In the next post, we’ll explore other examples of where to look for color temperature changes. Stay tuned!

P.S. Our online class Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters I starts January 31, 2020. Learn how to unlock the secrets of hue, value, chroma and color temperature. Join us!

The Three Uses of Value

As we know, when we refer to value we are speaking about how light or dark a shape or form, or part of a shape or form are. Generally when we refer to value we are speaking comparatively, that is, how light or dark something is compared to something else. However, by using a value scale we can begin to assign specific values to things and to talk about value in a more precise way.

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Values serve three functions in the art of landscape painting. First, using the correct value or range of values can help us create the illusion of outdoor space, air, atmosphere, and forms receding into the picture plane and to generally create a convincing depiction of outdoor Nature. This is Carlson’s Theory of Angles and aerial perspective.

Carlson Illustration

Secondly, values can be used to create the illusion of three dimensions in specific forms like tree trunks or rocks or any other objects we might find in the landscape. This is called modeling, shading or “turning form”.

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Third, values are used to create the overall structure of the painting, organizing them in such a way as to create a pleasing design. This is composition.

Morning Light 2430 72 greyscale_edited-1 Morning Light 2430 72 dpi

Of course, all these functions are interrelated. When we choose a certain value scheme to depict a sunny day for example, we are also making choices about how the values we use will help us show the solidity of forms and create a pleasing design. But, for purposes of study, it is useful to separate these functions and study them independently until they are all fully understood and can be applied together.

P.S.  Want to build a solid foundation for your landscape paintings?  In our online class Understanding Values in the Landscape  we study in depth Carlson’s Theory of Angles, atmospheric perspective and how each affects the values in every part of the landscape.  Then we take a deep dive into the all important skill of how to “key” a landscape , using a particular value range  to depict different times of day and lighting conditions. Class starts January 3 2020. Join us!

Let it Snow!

Many of us are facing bitter winter weather just now. So, it seemed an appropriate time to talk about…painting snow!

Two of the main concepts to keep in mind when painting snow are value and color temperature. When painting a light, highly reflective surface like snow we are hampered by the value limitations of our materials. Our white paint is the lightest light we can muster. In order to effectively represent snow and its surroundings, we must darken its value just a little, as well as the other planes in the landscape likes trees, hills and sky.

Because of its reflective surface, the color of snow is affected by the colors around it, most particularly the sky. That is why on a bright sunny day when the ground is covered with snow, you will see those intense blue shadows. That’s the zenith of the sky reflecting into the shadows. Recognizing the source of that color and maximizing it helps to describe the snow. In this painting you can see contemporary American landscape painter Stapleton Kearns doing just that. He has used a warm white for the sunlit portion of the snow and cooler whites to depict the planes turning from the light and the shadows. This is a great example of how one might model the snow on a sunny day.  Notice too how the value of the sky has been lowered just a bit and the rest of the scene brought into that range as well. The warm notes in the foreground logs provide a temperature counterpoint to the overall cool cast of the painting. Finding opportunities to include a warm note in a snow painting adds variety and richness to the snow filled world.

Stapleton Kearns
Stapleton Kearns

But, often when we paint snow, it’s not a sunny day. Here is a lovely tonal homage to snow by American painter John Carlson American ,1875-1947), author of Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. The color of the snow reflects the muted sky color, and the close values of grey, brown and violet in the near and distant trees evoke a quiet winter day in the woods. Subtle warm notes in the trees and plants sticking out of the snow provide the needed variety in temperature.

Carlson snow
John Carlson

Here’s one of my favorite snow paintings by Frederick Mulhaupt (American, 1871-1938 ). Mulhaupt has used value masterfully here. The counterchange between the light tree trunks and darker confers behind is echoed by the small triangle of dark water on the left. The violet sky is darker than the snow which helps to set it off and appear luminous. Subtle temperature and value changes within the snow describe the ground plane underneath, and the dark bits of earth peaking through lead the eye to the central arrangement of trees. The remaining foliage on the trees provides a warm counterpoint against the violet sky. Quite an orchestration!

Mulhapt snow
Frederick Mulhaupt

In this painting, I wanted to evoke the memory of a day in snow filled woods. The quiet muffled quality of sound, the intimacy of the deep woods, and my part in it were all on my mind. I used subtle value and temperature changes to depict the foreground snow and describe how it began to pile up on top of grasses, plants and tree trunks. Warm notes in the foreground provided a counterpoint to the violets, greys and browns.

Winter Woods Deborah Paris
Winter Woods
Deborah Paris

Finally, here is a painting by Marc Dalessio (American, contemporary) which he posted on his blog. He helpfully included a photo of the scene he was painting. This provides a great example of how he has manipulated value and temperature to create an effective design. Note how the snow value has been lowered and its temperature cast shifted to a very light blue green. Notice also the warm note of pink on the edge of the shadow underneath the main tree on the right and a similar note on the other side of the road. He has also darkened the value of the trees in the distance just slightly and the main tree as well, providing needed darker notes (along with the tire tracks).

Dalessio snow photo
Dalessio snow photo

Marc Dalessio
Marc Dalessio

Orchestration of value and color temperature is the key to success in snow paintings. So, go out and paint some snow!

P.S. Our two day online workshop Painting Snow is a great place to learn how to make the most of the winter landscape. Join us January 18-19, 2020

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Learn to Key Your Landscape

Landscape painters need to have a good understanding of the importance of value in successfully depicting the landscape on a two dimensional surface. In order to have our painting ‘read’, that is to show the planes of the landscape as well as its depth, atmosphere and scale, proper values are essential. As we’ve previously written, Carlson’s Theory of Angles is a great place to start as an overarching concept for understanding values in the landscape. But, it is only a starting point!

Another layer of complexity is added when we think about how to depict the varying atmospheric conditions, times of day and effects of light that we observe in Nature. Again, values are the key to success here. And, we often refer to this process as ‘keying’ the landscape.

For example, in order to key your landscape painting to depict a sunny day as opposed to an overcast day, you must learn to shift the value range up or down the value scale as well as understand the proper value steps between the light and shadowed parts of each plane in the landscape. It sounds complicated, but with careful observation and application of some basic concepts, this knowledge will allow you to paint what you see more accurately and also change the key of your landscape when painting from memory or imagination. This combination of observation + knowledge, gives you the ability to paint any light effect or time of day. It also gives you the ability to convincingly change the time of day or light effect from what you see in nature or from what is depicted in your reference material. This is a key skill in landscape painting (pun intended).

Here are a couple of examples. In this painting by Willard Metcalf (American, 1858-1925) we see a beautiful effect of bright sunlight.

Willard Metcalf Giverny

When we convert the painting to greyscale, we can see that there is a wide range of values from light to dark. Also, the lights and darks within each plane are several steps apart. Look at the grass (ground plane) for example and notice that there is a 2-3 step difference in value from light to shadow.

Willard Metcalf Giverny greyscale

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In this painting by  Claude Monet we are treated to a beautiful effect of low light and an overcast sky. The colors are more muted and the values in all planes of the landscape (sky, groundplane, uprights, slanted) are closer together.

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The greyscale of this painting shows a close value range and a shift toward the darker end of the value scale. The shifts between light and dark in the foreground are less than than a step apart, and the white sails of the boat are a step or more darker than the lightest value on the scale.

Monet Windmill at Zaandm 1871 greyscale

munsell_value_scale copy

By understanding both the value range and the steps between light and shadow found in each light effect or time of day, we can learn to key our landscapes effectively.

P.S. Our first online class of the year Understanding Values in the Landscape starts January 3rd! Master the use of values in landscape painting and learn how to key your landscapes successfully. Also, our 2020 schedule of online classes is now posted and open for registration. There are Class Bundles available to help you save. Join us!

Painting the Night

Birge Harrison nocturne
Birge Harrison

Painting the moonlit landscape has challenged artists for centuries.  Depictions of night time motifs tend to be as much about the ideas we have about the night as they are about what we actually see. As Thoreau said, “the night is a different country” and the shifts in perception that occur in a dimly lit landscape are inevitably influenced by the cultural ideas that surround the concept of night.

The motif of the moonlit landscape has been a popular one since the late 18th century. This was the  Age of Enlightenment and  moonlit landscapes were generally restorative and calm. The moonlight was often augmented by another light source by a reflection of the moon on water. This moon and water combination has become a common nocturne device and is still used in the 21st century. This example by Claude Joesph Vernet, Night a Port in Moonlight (1772) is typical of 18th century moonlit landscapes using both the moon, reflection and another light source (the fire) to illuminate the scene.

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But it was in the late 18th and early 19th century that the nocturne motif came into real popularity. The Romantic impulse in the art, literature and music of that time employed the nocturne as an emblem of the cultural shift from the 18th century Age of Enlightenment to the Romantic Age. The nocturne motifs were used to convey mystery, drama and even a touch of the Sublime. The restorative, calm works of the 18th century were replaced by paintings depicting mystery and the transformative quality of the moonlight to illuminate the metaphysical attributes of the landscapes, and to set up a correspondence between the moonlit landscape and the human mind. This Romantic impulse is still very much a part of the ethos of the contemporary nocturne.

The term nocturne was first used to describe a series of musical compositions by Frederick Chopin in the 1820s. Within the next few decades literary circles in Paris embraced the nocturne, especially the Symbolist poets Rimbaud, Verlaine and Gautier. By the 1860s the motif of the nocturne as a lyrical form of expression that conjured altered states of perception was widely embraced across all the arts. Perhaps one of its best known proponents was James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), an expatriate American artist living in London. Whistler, more than any other nineteenth century artist, reinvigorated the depiction of moonlit nights into a modern idiom. He appropriated the musical term “nocturne’ to describe his spare, murky depictions of nighttime along the Thames and in Venice. Whistler employed memory as a major component of his artistic practice, often observing a nighttime motif repeatedly before retreating to his studio to paint it.

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American artists in the 19th century were not immune to the charms of the nocturne motif. Several Hudson River School artists of the mid 19th century employed this romantic trope in service of the first truly American school of landscape painting. Hudson River School nocturnes tend to have more in common with the 18th century ‘moonlights’ than the Parisien ‘nocturne’.

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Twilight in the Tropics–Frederic Church

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Cloud Study, Moonlight  Albert Bierstadt

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the industrialization and electrical illumination of the urban landscape made contemplative moonlight scenes a rarity in real life and perhaps more sought after in art because of that.  Tonalist artists such as George Inness, William Dwight Tryon, Ralph Albert Blakelock, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Charles Warren Eaton were influenced by Whistler and explored the nocturnal realm extensively in their work. The veils of transparent and translucent color and softened forms of the Tonalist style were perfectly suited to a depiction of a moonlit landscape. But the attraction went far beyond technical compatibility. The expression of the mystery and altered states produced by the human experience of night and moonlight were central to the Tonalist aesthetic and to an artistic practice based upon memory.

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George Inness

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Charles Warren Eaton

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Birge Harrison

 Perhaps one of the best known examples of nocturnes at the turn of the 20th century  in America was a remarkable series of paintings produced by Frederic Remington. Remington, a well known illustrator, wanted to reinvent himself and seized on the nocturne motif as a way to demonstrate his chops as a fine artist. Remington’s nocturnes are powerful evocations of night painted with a robust facture and implied narrative that leaves no doubt that the night is dangerous territory.

Remington Night Herder
Night Herder– Frederic Remington

Remington nocturne Scouts
The Scout–Frederic Remington

Today the nocturne is alive and well in contemporary landscape painting. Depictions of the night include the urban landscapes lit by artificial lightening as well as the moonlit terrain of nature.

Moonlit Pines– Deborah Paris

 

P.S.  Learn how to paint the mystery and beauty of the moonlit landscape. Our online class Painting the Night starts soon! Join us!