Saturday, August 3, 2013

Three Tips For Painting Better Nocturnes

As I paint more nocturnes I'm learning more about what works.  Here are some key learnings I want to share with you.

1. Have a good light - I use a book light with two LED's and two stages of brightness.  The clip end houses the 2 AAA batteries.  Get a light with a balanced light color...not too blue or yellow.  New, high output bulbs produce a nice white light. 

2. Pre-tone your canvas a dark color.  I'm still experimenting with this but find that if I tone my canvas black or some dark mix of an earth tone and ultramarine blue and let that dry it is much easier to start the painting.  If you start with a white surface you have to lay down a lot of darks...which will muddy up your lights when you go to put them in.  Much of this struggle is eliminated if you begin with a dark, dry surface.

3. Slow down and enjoy the painting.  Take time to let your eyes acclimate to the darkness.  There is so much subtle variation and there is no hurry since the light sources are fixed (signs, street lights) and you don't have any moving shadows.  Basically, depending on the scene, you might have all night so take your time to really see the color and value relationships and work to get those right on your canvas the first time.  Having said this, I have been happily painting a scene when all of a sudden the main lit sign in my painting shut off for the night.  Oh well, that happens....just pack it up and try again another night.

I painted this scene of a railroad crossing out in the country.  It took me about 3 hours and I wrapped it up at about 1:30AM.  I parked off the side of the dirt road and painted from inside of the bed of my pickup.  One car passed me in three hours...otherwise there was no other light source and no people anywhere around.  It was so peaceful and relaxed.  I learned a lot by taking my time on this one.

"1AM at the Crossing" © Scott Ruthven
8"x10" |  Oil on linen panel


  1. Hi Scott, Thanks for posting on this topic, I've been itching to try a nocturne, and your advice is appreciated, one question, how do you choose your spot? When I look for places to paint in the day light)the light is the most important factor in the decision, how is it in the dark?

    1. Matt, good question! Light is still the most important factor but now the source of light is totally different. When I'm out driving around town at night I make mental notes of buildings with interesting lighting that I might want to come back to later. In the rail road painting the street light acted as a spotlight highlighting what's important in the scene. Suddenly something mundane can take center stage and the darkness forces the artist to edit out the unimportant. Other scenes have multiple light sources and often each one is a different color. I haven't done one of those yet but am excited to try it. James Gurney has written extensively on painting artificial light and nocturne painting. You probably already follow him but here's a link to some of his blog posts on night scenes:
      I think once you get out and paint a nocturne you will start noticing other good paintings when you are out and about at night.
      Thanks for your question! Happy painting.

    2. Thanks for your answer, I probably could have figured that out myself! and it's probably right in my backyard, Thanks and Keep up your great blog (and of course painting!) here's a link to my blog: Matt

  2. Great painting Scott, and also good tips! I have yet to paint a nocturne but looking forward to it eventually. Main problem is staying up so late lol, but I think shall give it a try one day. Need to find a nice light, as you said, to light up the paints and the canvas so I can see what I'm working with. Keep up the good work, really enjoyed the recent paintings you posted on facebook! Quite inspiring.

  3. Great blog created by you.Thanks a lot for sharing
    Omani artist


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