Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Little Nocturn

California Nocturn, 20 x 10 inches, oil on linen

This is a demo I did for my class a few weeks back. I don't usually paint nocturns –in fact I've probably done may be a dozen in my whole life. And half of them were illustration assignments.

But my students asked for a nocturn demo, and as I aim only to please, I gave it a go. If you talk to any of them who were actually in the class, they'll tell you the demo degenerated into a miserable piece of kitch and we had a good laugh.

I gave it another two hours the next day without an audience and brought it back to life, because after all, it had good potential it seemed a shame to let it die.

In terms of structure, a nocturne like this isn't all that different from painting fog. It's much lower keyed, of course, but the fact that it's silhouette driven, with soft edges, and tonally organized color makes it almost like painting a heavily atmosphered daytime view, only darker.

We don't see much of anything in the shadows because there isn't much of ambient or reflected light to illuminate them. If they're not illuminated, they're very dark, right?  Exceptions might be if there are artificial light sources present, or if the moonlight is bright enough that there is sufficient bounced light, or presence of atmospheric conditions that scatter the moonlight.  But in this particular painting, it's just a basic weak moonlight with (almost) nothing visible in the shadows.

In many a nocturn painting, we see the distant objects (hills, trees, etc.) just as dark as the foreground trees, because the atmospheric "stuff" (dirt, dust, smog, fog...) isn't there or just isn't illuminated. In my painting, I did make the background trees lighter for pictorial purposes. I think, in reality, the background trees would be much darker, or the moon much brighter (to illuminate the atmosphere between the fore and backgrounds)

A couple more characteristics to note; harsh cast shadows are absent. And since it's very tonal, there's very little, if at all, temperature shifts between light and shadow. Also, almost all colors are variations of a subjectively decided "color theme" of the painting - in this case a pale muted blue - and local colors (greens of the foliage, etc.) become more or less irrelevant. Except in the extreme foreground, but in this painting my foreground is all dark so you barely see it at all.

The characteristics I've described here fall within a fairly narrow context, though. If you Google "nocturn painting", you'll instantly see that there are many, many ways of approaching the problem of depicting night scenes and everything I've just said can be easily argued against. So as usual, a grain of salt goes a long way~


  1. Bravo once again Terry!

    As I look at the painting, I see how the scene reveals a sence of
    the night, and not a photo of the night.
    The mood you have created is a night mood. Or at least a night mood enjoyed.

    When I'm out at night, I'll take note, and try to recreate it in the studio. Painting outside with a candle on my head doesn't work.

  2. Terry,
    I love this. Sort of moody, spooky.
    Have you thought of doing cityscape nocturnes? This would be crazy - with lonely figures here and there.
    I love reading your post, no matter what my mood, they never fail to make me think.
    And, your brush work blows me away.

  3. thanks bill! " the scene reveals a sence of
    the night, and not a photo of the night".

    I must have done something right!

  4. Thanks Chris!

    I haven't done any nocturnal cityscapes, other than one or two I did years and years ago. I've thought about it. Just waiting for those thoughts to mature into concepts - it may happen soon.