Paintings set at nighttime might seem very different from the usual watercolor scenes. Dusk, evening, or even dawn pictures have a predominance of dark values. The mood of a nighttime or twilight picture can often be somber, gloomy, quiet, or perhaps even threatening. There may be fewer details seen than in a well-lit picture. However, a nighttime painting can also be effective, appealing, and powerful. How would you paint a dark evening image?
The amount and quality of light available determines what we visually perceive in any situation. Under clear, bright conditions, colors are pure, and edges and some details are sharp. Values are extreme. Lots of color is visible in shadowed areas. A painting with lots of light values is called a HIGH KEY picture. As the light becomes less strong (for example, on a foggy day, during a blizzard, at dusk), the level of detail, the sharpness, and the value contrast are reduced. Colors become duller and more subtle, creating a LOW KEY picture. Nevertheless, even in the dark, you want to see some details. A nighttime painting will have a source of light or two or three, and before you begin to paint, you must decide on those light sources in your picture, as well as on the strength and direction of the light and on what it will illuminate. Your picture needs some contrast in value (light and dark), especially near the point of interest, to be effective.
To produce a painting full of drama and power, you need to create dominance, whether in value, color, or shape. All you need to do to create VALUE DOMINANCE is to present the light, middle, and dark values in unequal amounts. A nighttime painting will be a low key picture, which will have dark value dominance. It will have more dark values than either light or middle tones. However, your dark picture still will need the contrast of some light and middle tones if it is to pop. The function of the dark colors is to complement the light tones and help your picture emit a glow. If you actually use complementary colors for your dark and light colors, you will immediately create a reaction that transforms the light tones into radiant light. Any warm and cool colors will create color contrast while vibrating against each other.
Farmhouse At Dusk, partially finished, illustrating the glow of complements orange and blue.
Darks can be luminous and colorful IF you mix them yourself from pure, translucent pigments. Using transparent colors allows light to reflect off the paper and up through the color to create a luminous effect. Opaque colors (such as ivory black Payne’s gray, Davy’s gray, indigo, sepia, neutral tint) do not allow any light to reflect back to the viewer and therefore appear flat and dull. Instead of using opaque colors, mix your own colorful darks from some of these transparent pigments: permanent alizarin crimson, Winsor (phthalo) blue, Winsor (phthalo) green, and perhaps ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, quinacridone gold, or quinacridone violet. Always design your darks to heighten your light pattern without overpowering it. Also, try to include nuances and variations in your darks. Do not use a dark mixture indiscriminately: large areas of unrelieved darks are not interesting. Ideally, you will build up your dark areas so that subtle shapes in each layer are there for the viewer to find. If you mix together all the colors that you plan to use for dark areas and apply this mixture in a single dark layer, the result will lack the transparency and interest of a dark created by GLAZING with separate layers of the same medium dark colors.
Transparency can also be enhanced if you strive for variations by NOT applying all the darks as one value. To add variety and vary the tones or values of your dark colors, paint some areas as ‘half-dark’. By painting part of the dark area a bit lighter, you create variation and an illusion of depth into what otherwise might be dull and monotonous (that is, of all one tone). Try to apply your layers of darks one at a time, each in one go, in one layer and as richly as possible. By mixing your darks with lots of pigment to create a rich color the first time, you can avoid having to add a similar layer (of the same color) over the same area; such an added layer can deaden the dark area and create a pasted-on appearance with hard edges.
Your pattern of dark shapes should ideally interlock or relate to your medium and lighter shapes. Hopefully, the forms transition into and set each other off rather than float in space separately. Neither light nor dark is as striking without the close proximity of other.
In summary: Begin your nighttime paintings by establishing the light sources in your picture, perhaps using masking fluid to save some. You may create other light areas during the painting process or by scrubbing and lifting later. Do NOT lose your light values! Glazing later can also subdue certain areas while allowing other areas to be left brighter. Choose muted or subdued, NOT bright, colors for your twilight or evening image.
To actually mix a darker and more intense color, use less water. Don’t repeatedly dip your brush in water when you try to pick up pigment with that brush. Instead, go from color to color without cleaning (rinsing) your brush in between. The only way to create the rich, dark colors is with less water!
Cityscape In Winter, partially finished, illustrating reflected light and bright halo around lights.
In a low key, dark painting, begin applying paint in a medium or mid-tone dark. Try to leave a lot of light around light source and subdue the rest of your painting. (You can use a warm yellow-white for incandescent lights.) If you want to create a halo of glowing light, start with a circle of clear water over the light, then float a dark wash all around the clear water areas, just touching it. This dark color will tend to diffuse. If the dark strays too close to your light source, absorb a little fo the dark color with a clean, damp (not wet) brush used like a sponge. After this area dries, you can apply a soft wash of warm yellow over the clear halo, leaving the brightest light as the white of the paper.
Don’t forget that light illuminates but also reflects off a subject. A streetlight may reflect light off buildings, and a brightly lit window may reflect onto the ground outside. However, these light areas need to be surrounded by darks. The farther away from the light sources, the darker your colors. Details almost disappear in the darkness as it increases.
After mid-tones or middle-dark tones dry, you can begin to layer in your next, darker tones. As you build up to your darkest colors, you create depth, interest, and subdued variation.
Snowy City at Night complete.