Sunday, February 12, 2012


(With thanks to The Pastel Journal, where this chapter was originally published.)

Nighttime City, 17" x 23"

Evening scenes intrigue us. Darkened skies allow soft shapes and patterns to emerge from shadows as the eye is drawn to the glimmer of warm lights amid the cool colors of twilight. The night reveals only some details and allows the mind to complete the picture. The subdued light and softness of evening evoke a certain mood in a painting. “In the shadows the mysteries dwell,” mused Leonardo da Vinci. However, in painting the night, darkness is always defined by the light.

Night paintings are low-key in value and color, often with areas of brilliant light to draw the eye. The use of powerful darks -- deep but colorful -- can strengthen a painting, while areas of light allow vivid medium and light colors to punctuate the dark. The night sky is cool, and headlights or city streetlights interrupt the darkness, unless the moon rises to cast its soft glow over the landscape. A fleeting sunset lends ethereal colors to the sky as the blush of color from the setting sun lingers for a few minutes and the lights of the city begin to twinkle in the distance. Stars and clouds decorate the night sky, setting the mood for the painting. These can be especially vibrant subjects. Night offers different challenges and much beauty to the artist.


To paint the night it is necessary to shift the contrast of the painting into a quieter mode, allowing the darks to dominate, yet not neglecting the light areas that are the backbone of a nighttime painting. Of course, without light nothing can be seen. No matter what the subject of the painting, it is the light that we must paint.

The saying, “in the dark all cats are gray,” illustrates the problem one encounters. In the dark, the sensitive cells of our eyes become less responsive to color and we rely far more on value-related black-and-white vision. This is the reason we have trouble finding two socks of the same color in the early morning light of the bedroom, unless the choice is solely of black or white. In dim light color becomes muted and dull, intensity is subdued and all colors take on a slightly grayish cast. However, this graying and dulling of colors in the dark is what allows the intensity of light to work in a painting. The blaze of light attracts the eye and reveals the colors.

So how can we make interesting and lively paintings of the evening? First we must change the value range in the piece. Instead of relying on the usual dark, medium and light scale of a normal daytime scene when the daylight is creating many medium values throughout the painting, we use a narrower range of dark and light only. The medium values and colors become much less visible except where there is light cast on the subject. Everything in the dark stays fairly dark and only those things in the path of the light are bright in color. This higher contrast of dark and light can make a strong painting.


The majority of colors used in a night painting will be dark, so begin there. Use a variety of subdued shades, layering them together to form fascinating colors that are interesting and deep.

Do not depend on black for the dark areas. Although black may be layered beneath colors to achieve the desired shade, it tends to be a cold, stark color when used alone. Vincent van Gogh once wrote about his painting titled CafĂ© Terrace, ". . . here there is a night picture without any black, nothing but beautiful blue and violet and green, and in those surroundings the lighted square is colored sulphur yellow and limey green.” As van Gogh did, use beautiful colors -- deep, dark blue, green, purple or red -- layered over black or atop another to make pleasing and vibrant darks.

Your colors need not all be cool, though most will likely contain some cool notes. Remember that your nighttime painting will utilize a lot of dark colors, so work to make them a strong portion of the piece, whether warm or cool.

Spend time outside at night observing how much color you can see. Notice the fascinating darks and how they are made distinct by light. Look for the colors you might use to make a painting -- dark and light. See how medium values exist only in well-lighted areas, and note that streetlights have a slight halo around them in the dark.

Night Street, 12" x 9"

Areas of light can occur as pinpoints in a night scene, such as streetlights or car headlights, or as a broad pane of light in the window of a house, so it is necessary to carefully compose using them. It is easy to end up with a piece that looks spotty, with points of light scattered in a disjointed way across the painting. Design with the thought of how the viewer’s eye will move through the piece.

Remember that the area where the lightest light and the darkest dark come closest together will draw the eye first and become the focal point of the piece. Sometimes in a dark painting the largest area of light will become the focal point, such as a large window where the light pours out. Be sure in either of these cases that the visual pathway formed by any other points of light compliment and reinforce this focal point, rather than draw the eye away.

Light areas in a night painting are the perfect place to use exciting colors, such as the sulphur yellow and lime green of the lighted square in van Gogh’s painting. The contrast of dark surrounding the light accentuates it, making it a special feature of your painting. Different kinds of bulbs cast light of varying hues. Incandescent bulbs are warm and yellowish, fluorescent light is generally cool and neon light is intense.

All bright lights at night have a slight halo, a softening of the edges where the light seems to hang in the air. The night air is somewhat moist and this vapor holds the light inside it. The larger the light and the wetter the night, the bigger the halo tends to be. Technically, you can achieve this effect by saving an area in the dark plane where the light will be, then laying in a medium color, perhaps a red, and blending it slightly into the surrounding darkness. Then add a layer of a medium-light color, depending on the color of the light itself, and allow the color beneath to show at the edges. A final touch of the lightest color in the center, usually very light yellow or white, simulates the brilliance of the light shining in the darkness.


Theoretically the night sky, when it is without the moon, stars or clouds, is a velvety deep black. Once again, flat black is not your best choice. Try using deep purple, dark blue and black, even adding a touch of the darkest green to the mix. Starlight can add a touch of violet to the darkest sky.

Even at night the sky is still slightly lighter in value compared to the darkened land plane, though it will not be the lightest value in the painting if there is a light source showing. The evening sky appears somewhat lighter than you think, especially in the early twilight. Carefully choose the value of the night sky, using colors from the cool side of your palette.

The night sky has a cool cast to it. No matter what color you decide to use, all colors are flavored with a bluish tone. At sundown, make yellows slightly green, pinks somewhat violet and greens bluer in hue. Remember that the darkest colors are at the top of the sky, highlighted by sunlit clouds beneath or punctuated with evening stars.

Let the glow of sprawling city lights in the distance, or the radiance of the soon-to-rise moon, illuminate the sky a bit, revealing mountains, hills, houses or trees in silhouette. The radiance of a mass of city lights can brighten the night sky to almost daylight proportions. Structure this kind of painting so that darkness hangs between the buildings, allowing the lights to shine brightly.

Night Overlook, 9" x 12"

The moon can be a delightful addition to the night sky in your painting, though its brilliance against a velvety dark sky can be arresting. Early in its trip across the sky, the moon can appear quite large and very yellow because of the magnifying effect of the atmosphere on it as it rises. When painting this, be sure that the high contrast of the light moon and dark sky contributes to the composition without becoming distracting.

Moonlight, even when the moon itself is not included in the picture plane, can define the characteristics of the landscape, describing hillsides, trees or buildings. Contours and shapes emerge from the darkness, muted by the night, cool in color, but still describing forms. Sometimes moonlight will be reflected off of particularly light objects and cast a secondary shadow. Look for light bouncing from a white building or wall and casting a deep shadow behind the foliage next to it. In deepest dark such secondary shadows do not exist.

A starlit sky may be a velvety dark violet or may softly glow dark purple with pinpricks of light floating in it. Use soft pastels in medium-light colors for the majority of stars, reserving the lightest color for the brightest stars. Remember that the light from the stars has traveled a great distance and is not the lightest light in the painting. When painting stars it’s best to keep in mind that fewer stars add more visual impact.

Clouds can add a blush of color in a moonlit sky, sometimes iridescent as mother-of-pearl, sometimes warm or cool gray. They serve to soften the shine of the moon and lend mood to a painting. They can foil the brightness of the sky, focusing the eye on the land plane instead.
Night's Colors, 9" x 9"

Sunset skies, when the atmosphere is alive with a blush of color for a few minutes, can add interest and sparkle to your paintings. The light level has diminished enough that the value contrast is reduced, adding the chance for city lights shining against the medium-dark colors of the land.

The darkening sky is very bright at the horizon as the sun dips below the land plane and the angle of the light is increased. The zenith of the sky may be dark enough that, even as the sun sets, there are stars beginning to sparkle overhead.

City lights in the distance can be a particularly interesting subject to paint. Observe such lights carefully, noticing how streets lined with stoplights, brake lights and headlights line up to form yellow or red streaks. Study how the sizes of the points of light indicate distance, the smaller pinpoints farther away. Look for red and white lights on the tops of hills or buildings, at the highest point. Indicate the sprawl of the city and the interruption of the hills, mountains or rivers with the pattern of lights. Include trees and other foliage amid the lights, which helps to illustrate the contours of the land. Add touches of red, green, yellow or orange from business signs, taillights and neon signs.

Night paintings can be a delightful challenge to paint. The contrast of the somber and the spectacular can be captivating, giving you endless opportunities for paintings. From city scenes to moonlit night skies, to the starry sky decorated with clouds, keep the mystery and mood of night paintings in mind and let the light define the darkness.

San Diego Fires, 9" x 12"


  1. Fantastic chapter! Everything you've said about night scenes is so true. One of the things I've noticed about overcast nights is that sometimes the sky takes on a very orange, turbid color from sodium-vapor streetlights. You can tell the locations of cities and major industrial areas from patches of that orange light on the undersides of clouds, it'll get to look strange at exactly the point trees and hills do look like black silhouettes while you're on the road.

    There are some highway scenes locked in my memory that I was never able to get adequate photos of, from too many road trips. Thanks to this chapter, I may come closer to recreating them from memory now! Thank you!

  2. Glad it sparked some further thoughts from you, Robert. Around my part of the land we just don't very often have overcast skies, so what you describe I recall from my California days. Great addition--thanks!

  3. WOW!! I absolutely luv your night time skies. The purples and blues work so well together. And to think this started from a charcoal drawing but yet has sooo many layers of vivid colour.

    Were they completed using completely soft pastel, or perhaps soft pastel layered over hard pastel?

    Lovely work as always!

  4. these are stunning night views deborah ... just wanted to thankyou and say how much i'm enjoying reading each chapter ...having followed the gouache corner on wet canvas

  5. Vanessa, thanks so much. Generally I use a range of medium and soft pastels, with far more of them being soft-soft-soft, like Schmincke, Ludwig, and Great American. I have some Giraults I love, too, which are in the slightly more medium range, and a few Nu-Pastels, which are hard.

    Jane, you're so welcome. I'm enjoying learning about gouache, but my heart belongs to pastels! Glad to have you following along here and there.

  6. Your night paintings are excellent - every aspect pointed out w/re to nightime painting had relevancy in making an okay painting great. Thank you for giving perfect examples.

  7. Are the night paintings done from memory? Photographs?

    Can't be out there with your easel?

  8. No, I don't paint on location at night, but SOME do! I use photos, but rely on a lot of observation to paint what I know is there. Do check out some paintings done by others on location. (in oils)

    1. Thanks Deborah, the article on Artist network:, was helpful and addressed some questions about flash blindness during night painting for me.

  9. Thank you so much for your clear instructions. I was not very sure of trying out pastels, but with your website I want to go for it.
    Prabha, Hyderabad, India

  10. This was incredibly helpful!!!! I LOVE night scenes. I especially like the idea of trying a painting with the sunset and moonrise occurring at the same time as it often does here. Thank you!

  11. I thank you so much for writing this and sharing it. Have not been able to stop reading since finding this link.
    Even though I don't work with pastels (yet - this is tempting me) everything you have to say about color, value, perspective applies to any painting.

  12. Thank you for this wonderful resource ~ I return often and retain something new at each visit. A blessing that keeps giving!

  13. I don't know the location of these paintings, but they snapped me back to driving into Phoenix for the first time. I can't think of a more beautiful city entryway than what I saw back then. Is this, in fact, Phoenix?

  14. cgrantski, these are derived from views I often saw of Albuquerque, where I've lived since 1981, but in most instances they weren't strictly taken from a photo. I brought a lot of license to the views, so they could be rather interpretive. I'm glad they give you such a visceral memory.


Thanks for your comment on Painting the Landscape in Pastels ~Deborah