How to Paint Cityscapes at Night

Written by phil whitmer
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How to Paint Cityscapes at Night
Cityscapes at night are a demanding subject for artists to paint. (painting image by Linda Brotkorb from

Cityscapes at night are part of the genre of nocturnes, or night-time paintings. Nocturne is a musical term for compositions inspired by the night. It was later applied to the paintings of James Whistler depicting subjects at night, including city scenes. J.M.W. Turner, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh often painted night-time cityscapes. Several of Vincent's Starry Night pictures show a city at night. The artist's job is to convince the viewer of the painting that it's really a night scene and it's actually dark outside. Many painting techniques and strategies can be used to achieve this goal.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Pencil
  • Charcoal
  • Paper
  • Canvas
  • Tubes of paint
  • Easel

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  1. 1

    Choose the scene you will use for your painting. When painting on location, in the open air, set up your easel where there is a street light or other source of available light to work by. Photograph the scene with a camera on a tripod with a long exposure if you would rather paint indoors. Look for a view with lights reflecting off water or lots of different coloured city lights to create interest.

  2. 2

    Sketch out your composition on thick paper or canvas with pencil or charcoal. Use your reference photographs for details, or draw the scene on-site for a sense of immediacy. Visit the scene during daylight hours and make studies of the compositional elements you will use in your finished painting.

  3. 3

    Use colours that are evocative of a night-time scene. This doesn't mean you are restricted to an overly dark palette. In one of his letters to his sister Wilhelmina, Van Gogh wrote, "It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens." A cityscape at night will have a different colour key than the same scene seen during the day. Use cooler colour tones to capture the feel of the night.

  4. 4

    Observe the sources of light in your nocturnal city scene and use them to convey a sense of reality in your painting. The light will come from the moon, storefronts, lit windows, street lights and automobile head lights and tail lights. Watch how the light reflects off different surfaces and use the effects to establish your structure of tonal values. Use the shimmering and sparkling qualities of light on water and other smooth or textured surfaces to convey the contrast of light against the night darkness.

  5. 5

    Work from dark to light, first establishing the overall darkness of the city scene. Paint in the progressively lighter areas of your value range, adding the brightest highlights last of all. Once the value relationships and basic colour scheme is laid out, the detailing and fine finishing can be completed in a well lit indoor studio, or during the day.

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