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A couple of weeks ago, I was paging through some old sketchbooks of watercolors I had painted during three separate trips to the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), in Mexico. At five and a half times the size (and 1500 feet deeper) than the Grand Canyon, the Barranca del Cobre is, to say the least, impressive.  The main objective of these trips was to paint the Tarahumara Indians, who are indigenous to this canyon. The Tarahumara have survived in this hostile environment for centuries. Some live in the few, scattered pueblitos, but the vast majority still live in caves and small wooden shacks. There is basically one dangerous road from the rim to the bottom, so the logistics of getting around (for a painter with no vehicle) were fairly imposing. However, the biggest challenge was having no electricity. Rather than lying around all night, doing nothing, I did what I’ve done on so many painting trips: I painted night scenes.

And now, after that somewhat lengthy diatribe, we come to the point of this newsletter:

I was looking at some of the nocturnes (night paintings) that were in the Copper Canyon sketchbooks, and it really got my juices flowing.

“Wedding Night – Batopilas” “Feast of Guadalupe”

So I’ve spent the past couple weeks painting nocturnes. 

Few things in life are more romantic than a landscape suffused in moonlight. All familiarity is shadowed and veiled in obscurity. It’s a world of mystery, that at once draws us closer, and at the same time repels us with its vagueness and uncertainty.

When the forests here are carpeted with snow, and the full moon bathes the landscape, I take my dog, Banjo, on extended treks through the hills. I love the peace and calm, and the illusory effects of the silvery light and the cold, dark shadows. I know, while I’m hiking, that this very same allure has intrigued painters for centuries.

As early as the seventeenth century, Rembrandt Von Rijn (1606-1669) was a regular practitioner of night paintings.

  The Night Watch – Rembrandt

The tradition has continued unabated until the present, and, throughout the history of art, virtually every notable painter can claim an attempt at rendering the night in paint.

“Moonlight ”
Thomas Cole (1801-1848)


One of the first great practitioners of nocturnal painting was James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). It was on a trip to Chile in 1866 that Whistler painted his first three night scenes, which he termed “moonlights” (he later called them “nocturnes”, and he is credited with coining that term for night paintings). Prior to Whistler there seemed to be an artistic convention that required the shadows in a moonlight painting to be rendered in brown. He is, in my opinion, the first major artist to understand that in diminished light, the colors of blue and violet still remain visible to the human eye. That is why his nocturnes are so convincing.

“Nocturne in Black and Gold” “Nocturne in Blue and Silver”

Another painter that further refined nocturnal painting was the famous illustrator Frederick Remington (1861-1909). Remington was inspired to explore nocturnal light after seeing the work of California artist Charles Rollo Peters (1862-1928). Peters was a Paris trained painter, who was influenced by Whistler and specialized in nocturnal scenes.

Casa Sargenti – Charles Rollo Peters

Painted in the first decade of the twentieth century, Remington’s night scenes are a culmination of his extraordinary interest in nighttime effects.

From 1907 to 1909, Remington increasingly painted both nightscapes and firelight scenes. Though always set in the old West, the paintings reflect the artist’s fascination with the startling new illuminations of his own modern era: namely, flash photography and the electric streetlight. In many ways, Remington set the standard for the modern nightscape.

“A Pack Train “ and “The Old Stagecoach” – Remington

Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to Frank Tenney Johnson (1874-1939). He was one of the most famous painters of western genre in the 20th century. Early in his career, he painted illustrations for Field and Stream magazine. Between 1904 and 1920, he made numerous trips out west to gather information for his western paintings. His nocturnes seem almost unlimited in their scope of color and technique. Regarding his night scenes, it’s almost like he took all that came before him, extrapolated on that information and raised the art of the nocturne to a new level.

“Sheriff’s Posse” - F.T. Johnson

“Night Watch” – F.T. Johnson

Here are a few of my attempts over the past two weeks. I learned a whole bunch, including the fact that night paintings are virtually impossible to photograph under natural light. The camera seems to “chunk up” even the smoothest passages. Anyway, I’ve had a lot of fun painting these nocturnes.

These first two include a watercolor sketch and a small finished oil:

“A Winter’s Night” 9x12 wc

“A Winter’s Night” 14x18 oil

For the next two pieces, I used the landscape right outside my house:

“Moonlight” 9x12 wc
“Almost Home” 18x24 oil


These last four western pieces were inspired by Frank Tenney Johnson’s and Frederick Remington’s work:

“Moonlight on the Divide” “Passing in the Night”12x16 oil

“Campfire” 30x24 oil
“Los Esperanderos” 9x12 wc

If you’ve never explored painting night scenes, you might give it a try. It’s a lot of fun, and it may open up new avenues in your art.

Happy Painting!