Sunday, October 4, 2015

Strategies for Evoking Moonlight

"Khasra by Moonlight" is one of the original paintings in the exhibition "The Art of James Gurney"  in Philadelphia. 
Khasra by Moonlight by James Gurney, 12 x 18 inches, oil on board
To evoke the feeling of moonlight, I used the following six strategies, which I based on my own personal memories of observing moonlight, and my study of other artists whose nocturnes I really admire (especially Frederic Remington, Atkinson GrimshawJohn Stobart, and Frank Tenney Johnson):

1. Set up an overall temperature contrast between the orange torchlight and the cool blue-green moonlight.
2. Keep the chroma in the moonlight low--not too intense of a blue-green. Hint of blue in far distance.
3. Put a slight warm halo around the moon and edge-light the adjacent clouds.
4. Keep the key of the painting relatively high.
5. Suppress all detail in the shadows and put some texture and variety in the lights.
6. Introduce a gradual stepping back of value, lightening as it goes back to the far minaret.

Here's the quick (45 minute) maquette that I built for lighting reference. It didn't need to be beautiful at all, just any old blobs of modeling clay were all I needed.

I quickly discovered that I had to move the actual lighting position quite far to the left, much farther to the left than the position of the moon in the painting.

After taking a digital photo of the maquette, in Photoshop I shifted the key toward blue-green, and I desaturated it slightly. The photo shows a lot of reflected light in the shadows, which I largely ignored. I would have played up that reflected light had I wanted to evoke daylight effects, where I might want to amplify the relatively weak reflected light.
"The Art of James Gurney" at the Richard Hess Museum at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia will be on view through November 16, and I will do a public presentation on October 29.
"Khasra by Moonlight" was first published in Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara
There's a discussion of architectural maquettes in my print book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist and an exploration of moonlight in Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter


Dow said...

Great post! Thank you for sharing your tips. Love the blobby clay model. - Dow

Kevin Mizner said...

Have you ever noticed that moonlight always seems brightest near you, and recedes in intensity the farther away you look, leaving objects in the distance even more dark and shadowy? Or is it just me? I think of it as the "Spotlight Effect". Anyway, someday before I hang up my brushes, I hope to paint a decent nocturne, so thanks for the tips!

Rod said...

Fascinating post that got me looking closely at the nocturne links you posted, in large part because I don't entirely think "Khasra by Moonlight" succeeds as a nocturne -- it looks more like a late winter afternoon to me. Note for example Stobart's "San Francisco, the Gold Rush Harbor by Moonlight in 1851" -- the sky is bright and cerulean on the left third of the canvas, where the moon is, but farther away it gradates into darker values in a way that sells the relative weakness of the light, helping to assure us that we're looking at the moon and not the sun. (Actually, as i dig deeper I see that Stobart also has a few nocturnes that I don't quite buy as nocturnes, so this could be a matter of personal aesthetic preference. In any case, very thought-provoking topic and I thank you for posting about it!)

P said...

But what happened to the friday book club? Is there a new date?

James Gurney said...

Thanks, everyone. P: The book club is on hold until early November as I'm not able to get to it right now. Thanks for your patience.

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

I have noticed that in most descriptions of nocturnes and the strategies for painting them, it is assumed that the scene is lit by the Moon.

But the Moon isn't always there to light a scene. That's something I find fascinating - how to paint at night scene with the starry sky as the only light source (or maybe not even that).

One painter who really had to find a way to deal with that is Ken Marschall. He has painted numerous scenes of the sinking of the Titanic, which happened on a moonless night (and of the wreck that rests in complete darkness at the bottom of the ocean). It's quite interesting to study his paintings and think about where the (invented) light comes from and what value range he is using.

Thom Beech said...

Hi James,
What types of lights do you use to shoot reference? I have two regular stand lights with diffuser umbrellas - but no "spot light" or "target light". Would it be good to have one? Do you use colored acetate ever?
I'd really love to see a blog post on how you shoot reference.
Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us :)

James Gurney said...

Thom, yes, a spot light is extremely valuable, especially if you want to simulate sunlight. I've used incandescents, but the new spot LEDs are excellent, too. I've used both with colored gels. Even better is to take your model or maquette outdoors into real sunlight.
--James G.