Light up the night with watercolors. As an artist, I have always been drawn to bright light and its ability to bring drama to ordinary subjects, but it was just a trip with my daughter to Lincoln, Nebraska, where I recognized the possible night scenes on offer. Our busy schedule interrupted my usual vacation practice of taking afternoon walks with my camera searching for solid shadows to film as pictorial references. Instead, I was forced to take my photos at night in the city center.
While at first, I thought these shots would only provide a temporary deviation from my usual subject. I quickly noticed the new appreciation they gave me for observing the interplay between light and dark. Since that trip to Nebraska, I have decided to regularly tackle night scenes in my work, a practice that has helped me become a more astute observer of darkness and light.
Various light sources
One thing that distinguishes night scenes from other subjects is that night scenes almost always incorporate more light sources unless you are painting a rural landscape by moonlight. It may seem not very safe, but having multiple light sources can be an advantage, as well as a gaming opportunity. Rather than forcing a literal rendering of the scene and its various lights (which will change at any given moment), think of yourself as you design with light and dark, using the different light sources to direct the viewer’s gaze around your composition.
It starts with the windows.
I recommend that you approach your night scene through the light sources, starting with the illuminated windows. Since windows are among the brightest areas in any night scene, placing them early helps define your patterns. Also, glare or reflective lights in the windows make up some of your true whites, so you’ll want to set these in before putting on the paint. Painting the lighted windows first also allows you to set a background painting for the entire image, as explained in Painting lighted windows in watercolor below, and also you can practice rose drawing with watercolors.
Highlights: True whites are critical to the look of sparkle and shine, so first, map the reflections on your windows with a masking liquid, alternating circles, lines, and rectangles diagonally for a natural, irregular look (I recommend working in cold-pressed paper). It also masks the centers of the streetlights. Since these actual targets will attract the viewer’s attention, consider where the focal point of the Painting will be, and make sure these targets direct the gaze accordingly.
DIFFUSE LIGHT / UNDER Chroma: Once the whites are masked, wash the entire surface and, using long blows, add strings of scattered light. I used cadmium yellow, alizarin crimson, and just a little bit of phthalo blue. These bands of color will become the lighted areas of the windows, implying “something inside” without explaining it exactly.
By covering the entire page, not just the window areas, these colors also become your background paint, ensuring variety and shading in subsequent paint layers. The overall look you are looking for here is a light, flowing, and somewhat golden spread of color. The undercoat should have smooth edges, setting the tone for the shapes you’ll be laying on top.
Abstract shapes: Finally, you want to bring depth and interest to the interior of the windows. This application spread light streaks of clear varnish over certain sections, looking for places to introduce abstract shapes. These forms involve objects or people, interpreted by the imagination of the viewer.
I like to use phthalo blue, cobalt blue, alizarin crimson, and just a little bit of phthalo green, but you can use any combination that suits you. Consider adding some cadmium red stains to add some extra flair here and there.
Switch to streetlights
After fixing the windows and background painting, the following light sources to consider are streetlights. You will face them when you apply your first level of Dark Valor. I like to use the burnt sienna from the tube because that color stands out so well, which becomes important later when I simulate the soft, radiant halos from the lamplight. You can follow my process at Glowing Street Lamp in Watercolor below.
Remove mask: You will have masked the lamp area when you started painting (preferably on cold-pressed paper). Once you have the undercoat and are ready to begin darkening, remove the masking fluid.
Washing and lifting: Prepare the clothing and begin applying it to the paper, taking care to avoid lighted windows. Notice the hue the color takes on as a result of your primer. (Lighted windows will also begin to take shape as the contrast with darkness increases.) When you approach an area with a lamppost, cover it with a scrub like other areas, but then with a round brush—Clearwater where the center of the bulb would be. Lightly blot the meeting and then use it to lift the color off the center of the bulb and form a ring around the bulb. Raising the color in this way moderates the white of the bulb and creates a soft-edged halo.
Add soft edge layers:
- Next, practice more paint to the edge of the sunrise.
- Continue to drop.
- Lift the water from the market until the soft-edged halo displays obvious and continues.
As you add layers of dark values, repeat this process to soften the edges by adding more water and more pigment, lifting and adding until the bulb appears to glow. Let a small area of faithful white remain in the center, but soften that area as you get closer to the outer edges.
A full range of values
As you continue to layer, I recommend switching to a mixed toasted sienna of an alizarin crimson base with some cadmium yellow and a small amount of phthalo blue. This composite pigment will offer more color change opportunities than a tube color and stay in a better position as you continue to apply coats.
If the burnt sienna doesn’t turn as dark as you’d like, switch to a dark purple or indigo made with phthalo blue and alizarin crimson for some of the darker areas. This blend creates a wonderfully pure deep dark that, when placed over browns, retains its warmth without getting muddy. Make sure that when you paint these courses, you proceed to lift the corners of the halos encircling the streetlights.
The details added at the end bring a night scene to life. Once your paint is completely dry, you can return with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (the original, no detergents or chemicals added) to lift details, flare, and reflections. Start by placing a piece of masking tape over the area you want to raise and, using an inexpensive knife from a hardware store, create a template out of the video. For the strands, cut a long line, then lift the middle of the ribbon and move it slightly to create a fine parting.
Dampen the enchantment eraser with fresh water and rear. Dry the area with a paper towel before removing the tape. Finally, you’ll want to put in some subtle black lines and accents, like wires, railings, or cracks in the floor. It will add contrast and visual interest. Using a black-laden writing brush made of phthalo green and alizarin crimson, paint your accents with a light touch.
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