Painting the Night Sky

It might be mid winter, but in Malta, we’re pretty lucky with our long hours or sunlight, mild winters and relatively steady climate. What this island is unfortunately not very good for is stargazing, as there’s far too much light pollution – apart from in a few hard-to-get-to places – to see anything more than Polaris and the moon.

So perhaps it’s strange that I decided to paint the night sky. I’ll admit, sadly none of my paintings are painted from subjects I’ve been able to see or paint myself, but there’s a wealth of source material to use.

The challenge with painting the night sky, particularly in watercolours, is getting the right amount of depth and contrast, not easy! But after 2 years of painting the subject, I’ve come up with a few tips for painting a successful night sky scene.

Observe the sky as much as you can during the day particularly if, like me, you have nothing to look at during the night. Watch shifting clouds, changing light, how the sky transforms from powder blue to that deep, deep enveloping blue.

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Take plenty of photos (again, in my case, I’m restricted to daylight/sunset/sunrise) as you’ll be surprised just how many colours there are that you don’t immediately see. Again, these observations will be useful for later night scenes.

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Don’t use black paint. The only time I use black paint for a cosmic painting or a night sky is when I prepare a black acrylic base, upon which I’ll then paint my oils. Black looks to flat, and too dull. By all means, mix a touch of black into your deepest blues and create a ‘vignette’ edge to the piece, which will help create a greater sense of depth as well as draw the eye in.

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Use many cool and deep tones, and warm colours. There are so many different moods you can create!

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Use salt, for some really interesting ‘cloudy’ textures!

Unfortunately, the next time I’m feeling inspired, I won’t be able to look at more than a few little twinkling white dots from my roof, however, if I stop to think about it, those tiny twinkling balls are endlessly complex, fascinating, and inspiring all by themselves.
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Cosmic Thoughts – Starlight

“We are part of this universe; we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.” Neil deGrasse Tyson

There’s something infinitely powerful about horses. If you’ve ever stood so close to one as to feel it’s snorting breath, its rippling muscles and those eagle-sharp eyes, you’ve probably felt this presence. If you’re a horse owner, leisure rider, professional horseman, then you know what this feeling is all about.

It’s somewhere between calm, yet ready to spring into life at any moment. A horse is a prey animal; so it’s every fibre is ready for action, should the need arise. The universe, to me, has this same quality; a fluid, well-oiled, perfectly synchronised machine, yet hiding something tumultuous.

Perhaps these thoughts are the reasons why I painted Tower of Starlight, but perhaps these are just the inspirations I realised after. I knew what I wanted to paint, and how I wanted to paint it.

 

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Tower of Starlight, 100 x 60cm Oils on Canvas

 

We (roughly) know how the universe was formed, and when.

The ‘why’ is always a bit more of a mystery.

Tower of starlight
Free-falls into the mountains
And a horse seeks warmth.

Learn more about my cosmic nature paintings.

 

Cosmic Thoughts – Existence

“No man is an island,” wrote the poet John Donne. I would add: no island is an island. Nature does not exist in isolation. It’s birth, evolution and daily chimings are dependent on the greater nature beyond our planet’s fragile borders. My mind wonders to the numinous thought espoused by the science of quantum biology that mutation in the genes of life-forms on earth could have been triggered by the sun’s rays affecting the way DNA copies itself in terrestrial veins. So the random mutations that lead, through non-random ways, to our very existence, could have come from the very fingertips of our star.

Aesthetically, too, nature is wedded to the cosmos. The colours of the sky, of plants, of the sea, of the rainbow, all of them, are dictated by the cosmos that veils our planet. And I can think of no greater masterpiece than a tower of starlight in free-fall over a tundra or a great lake. All we can do is be humble and get into that ring of beauty, see what we’re made of – literally.

neighbours
Neighbours, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Light

The lights we see from stars and planets emit a beautiful array of colours. But light isn’t just about illumination. Light is the very DNA of a celestial body’s chemical make-up. By using spectroscopy, astronomers can deduce what elements are present on a planet or star. Each and every element in the universe, when burned, gives off a unique set of colours. And these are the same anywhere across the vast universe. Strontium is a reddish purple. Sodium is yellow. Potassium is lilac. Copper is blue. And so on.

If you look at a rainbow, you are also looking at the chemical make-up of our own sun. Our sun is about 70% hydrogen and 28% helium – which isn’t surprising, because those two are the most common elements in the universe. And as you can imagine, for a painter, knowing that colours play such an important role in the decoding of the universe – colours are essentially the bar codes of existence – is a great inspiration. So when you look at the night sky, and you paint it, you pay very careful attention as to what each and every colour you’re using actually means.

Colour then, is the language of the universe. The phrase ‘the music of the spheres’ should be redundant – the universe is quiet, but it has some very loud colours!

Dog Galaxy Watercolour Painting
The Running Dog, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Awe

Ever since I was a little girl the aesthetics of the universe had a Sisyphean hold on me. I owned many big books and encyclopedias about astronomy, where I was amazed by the way galaxies whirled and how bright and colourful nebulae always were. I looked at the planets on our solar system and learned their Roman names. Saturn’s rings, in particular, reminded me of a princess wearing her crown. And Jupiter – the king of all gods, isn’t he? – always looked pissed off to me.

I had lost that connection with astronomy as I grew up and nature – earth’s nature – took more of a hold on me. But by a personal Darwinian evolution I went from religiously watching David Attenborough documentaries to watching Professor Brian Cox. Attenborough’s natural heir. He re-kindled my infantile passion and sense of wonder at the great beyond. His Wonders series are a masterpiece in themselves. And when I feel that mixture of awe and curiosity the only way I can subdue that wonderful itch is to paint.

who is listening
Who’s Listening? Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Expression

No matter what medium you use to paint cosmic scenes – be it oils or watercolours in my case – they are full of inimitable expressiveness. Van Gogh painted his mythical night sky, Starry Night, using oils so thick it made the painting feel tactile. It’s as if Van Gogh was inviting you to touch that bright moon in a way you can’t in life. In watercolours, I find, the night sky feels more fluid. As if you can swim in the unreachable depths of space. As if the night sky is a free-flowing seascape. I don’t know what to choose, so I keep alternating between the two. Happily, may I add.

Swan Nebula Galaxy Watercolour Painting
Swan Nebula, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Calm

Nothing is more calming than painting the night sky. A scene which is deceptively static yet full of unfathomable concerts of movement, death, rebirth and evolution. I was never one for meditating. Never followed the fad of yoga or Zen. Sometimes I feel guilty. But then I paint the night sky and I see those fads in a new perspective: they’re bullshit. All those stars, those long-dead supernovas of radiant colour, all the immeasurable galaxies, an ecosystem beyond imaging, a symphony of exo-planets possibly filled with life – all those thoughts inevitably go through your mind as you paint, and really, there is no greater joy.

Barn Owl Watercolour Painting
Waiting For Wings To Take On The City, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.