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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Finding Harmony in Art Through Nature

The process of formulating a painting is fraut with difficulties.

What may seem to be a very simple relationship between colour, subject and form to an outsider, is often a complex web of decisions that you made, un-made, and didn’t make at all.

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Songs in Miniature, Oils on Board

The above painting is at first glance a fairly straightforward piece, in composition and chromatically. There are only really two tones here, and the piece holds itself together thanks to this quiet harmony.

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A beautiful location, painting in a 16th Century Palace…and I love the shot of this painting, but somehow, the harmony just wasn’t there. (I will paint this piece again one day!)

Nature works in harmony with itself; even though it doesn’t always seem to be the case. Raging savanna fires restore the balance of populations and fertilize the grass, the weak die so that the strong can survive. There is a delicate, complex web that unites all species, all habitats and all natural phenomena.

The harmony of nature is the theme I approach in painting. And New Zealand’s sparky, fat parrot the Kakapo is a perfect example of this. This unfortunate flightless parrot had evolved in perfect harmony with its natural forest habitat that was free of ground based, furry predators. But times change, and we, like the Kakapo, have to evolve with them or find a new harmony.

The purpose of this blog is for me to lay down some ideas for my next painting; figuring out what harmonies I need to figure out before I put paintbrush to canvas. It’s important for a painting to appear unified and effortless, whilst at the same time evoking a sense of a deeper meaning behind it (and I’m not talking the meaning behind a black square, either, I’m talking something real). How do I transform a subject, a topic that moves me, into a canvas that moves others?

Kakapo Watercolour Painting
Watercolour study for the upcoming Big painting!

Instead of looking at the finished painting as the goal, look at the whole process. An evolution in itself.

Art Diaries: Lessons To Be Learned From Eclectus

It’s always insightful to look back on older works, particularly the ones that you were satisfied with, whilst cringing at those that didn’t. Whilst my artistic journey has now spanned almost 8 years, I’m intrigued about the lessons I can learn from myself. A bit of self-reflection goes a long way.

Eclectus Parrot Oil Painting on Canvas
Eclectus, Oils on 50 x 50cm Canvas, 2012

Looking back on this painting from 2012, I can instantly say that I love this painting, as much as I did when I had just finished it (I was so enthusiastic about this piece that, incidentally, I forgot to sign it – normally I sign a painting at around the 3/4 mark). It was one of those magic formulas that just worked. But rediscovering this piece almost three years on I realised that there are many aspects of it that I would have done differently, so much so that Imay re-work this piece in the coming days.

Here are my critiques:

1. It’s a little too dead centre.
Whilst I love that the branch effectively splits the composition in two, I would have re-positioned the parrot herself slightly further down the canvas, so the line of her head could follow the branch up into the top corner.

2. Bring out the blues.
What makes the Eclectus female so beautiful is that stunning red plumage, but the blue wing feathers and neck markings really pop too. More blue on the neck would have worked wonders.

3. Put her in harmony with her environment.
Whilst I love the texture of the background, I forgot one important rule; that the subject should reflect the colours of the environment, and vice versa. Some touches of green and yellow in her feathers would have brought her to life and made her more 3 dimensional.

But here are the positives:

1.Regal red.
This parrot is all about red, and whilst there are many reds supplied in tubes, it’s difficult to get the exact red that you want.

2.Those primaries.
I’m not talking primary colours, though the red/yellow/blue combination is evident on the left hand side of the canvas. The primary wing feathers have just the right amount of shadow and texture to make them project forward from her tail and make you want to reach out and touch them. I may extend and enhance the yellows in the background as perhaps the green is a little too dominant.

3.She’s got that look.
Either you’ve just raided her nest, or you’ve caught her on a cheeky escapade with another male; either way, she shouldn’t have caught you looking.

Oh, and of course another lesson to be learned: take a photo in natural light. That’s a job for tomorrow!