“The Joys of Night Painting”

“Consentito Solo”,
by Robert Leedy, 2002,
watercolor on Arches 140 lb Hot Press paper, 13″ x 19″
Collection of Dr. & Mrs. Leonard A. Brennan
Atlantic Beach, Florida

Night painting is an exercise all artists should try – at least once. The painting above is such an example and was executed while I was on a painting workshop in Lake Garda, Italy with Louise Freshman Brown. During walks to and from painting locations during the day – through the small, quaint, lakeside village of Gargnano – I noticed this very interesting and beautifully handcrafted scull boat tucked away in a little vaulted covey hole along a narrow street. An opening in the opposite side of the space allowed daylight (and lake views) to come through which silhouetted the shape of the boat. The opening also seemed to compositionally frame a particular view of the opposite side of the lake. This little scene always caught my attention as I walked by and I made a mental note of it as a possible painting subject.

One night, after a full day of painting and as I returned from dinner at a local restaurant, I saw the boat for the first time at night. It was fully illuminated by halogen lights and stood out dramatically as if it were some sort of shrine. It screamed to be painted. I looked at my watch and saw it was 10 p.m. I ran back to my room, grabbed my painting gear and returned to the scene.

Plein air painting always attracts attention. But painting at night always arouses suspicion. I think a dozen local Italians eyed me as if I were some sort of burglar or vandal. One guy looked as if he was ready to go get his gun and make a citizens’ arrest.

On the flip side, there is a danger of not being seen; Because this was a narrow Italian street, I was sitting partially in traffic flow. Fortunately, I was wearing light-colored clothing…

Those hazards aside, the real problem with night painting is poor visibility. Although there was enough reflected light to somewhat illuminate my palette, individual pigments are indistinguishable – and more importantly – value control is thrown to the wind.

My pigments normally remain in prescribed positions on my palette so, I usually have a pretty good idea of what’s what. But the value problem remains and the process is largely left to chance – and fun when you see the results in proper light.

One way around the value pattern is to work from light to dark. Many might say this is the normal procedure in any watercolor painting yet I mix it up in areas and frequently start with large areas of darker value patterns.

The boat painting was a lot of fun. I started with a minimal amount of drawing and dove right into my paints once I understood the under structure of what was in front of me. The painting itself was just a fun exercise – I wasn’t counting on it to be a happy ending. This philosophy often frees your mind up and allows you to experiment and push further with a painting.

I stuck with a limited palette. This is not the time to worry about a lot of color swishing around on your paper. I was worried about drying time so I selected hot press paper which has a smoother surface and absorbs paint quicker than cold press.

It may not be visible in the image above but I included the barely visible lights from across the dark lake which seemed to add a magical quality to the whole scene.

For anyone familiar with my work, you will notice this painting is not exactly the full strength – value-wise – as my normal works. Part of this might be the hot press paper but mostly it is the visibility problem; the value pattern looked very strong in the darkness. Still, it is quite a successful painting (I think, anyways…)

I continued for several hours and worried about getting back to my room before the front door was locked for the night – we were staying in a monastery. Gargnano is not exactly a town teeming with night life so, the only people walking around this late are burglars, vandals and crazed plein air painters.

I got into my room and didn’t even want to look at the painting because the dim, tungsten-lit quarters would not do it justice. I waited until daylight.

The next morning was like a kid opening his presents on Christmas morning – I was so excited to see the results – in the daylight.

I was very pleased with what I saw.

A note on the painting: The title (“Consentito Solo”) is not a reference to the name of the boat; I pulled it off of the parking sign next to the scene which I believe is a reference to parking by permit only. I thought it sounded appropriate; Italian speakers may disagree…

The boat itself is actually an hommage put up by the town of Gargnano and its sculling team to pay hommage to one of its well-known members (back in the 50’s, if I remember correctly). Don’t quote me on this – it was only my poor translation of the Italian on a nearby plaque. For all I know, it may have been something about a guy who didn’t pay his parking tickets…

Click here to see another one of my night paintings, “Night Study – l’Institut de France, Paris” .

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