Painting Moonlight

Armand Cabrera

Painting moonlight is not something people do much these days but I thought I would address the lighting effects from moonlight anyway. Moonlight is really strong reflected light and because of its weaker source, moonlight appears very cool to our eyes. Like ambient light, you lose the reflected light from other surfaces. The exception is in snow, where a strong enough phase of the moon with a clear sky will give you some reflected light, depending on the angle to the viewer.

The whole value scale is squeezed down to two thirds of the full normal value range. Edges lose their crispness compared to daylight situations and because of these lower values most hues have lower saturations. The cool light, warm shadows adage works well here too. Many painters start with a warm compliment wash of a deep red or yellow before painting the rest of the scene.

In a moonlit sky the light spreads out in prismatic order, this is especially apparent when clouds or fog is present and can add a dramatic effect if you are skilled enough to capture it.


One of the problems with painting at night is, it’s hard to find a good enough light source to paint by. I wear a head lamp that is used for camping and I have a barbecue light I can attach to my painting rig for my palette. It has a c-clamp style base and works well with all my various setups; French easel, pochades or A-frame easel. This way I can have light on my painting and palette at the same time, although I won’t be making any best dressed lists in this getup.

The biggest challenge of painting at night is finding a safe location that allows you to paint but won’t get the cops called on you. Most people think you’re pretty weird when standing around in one place with a headlamp on. If you get too far away from people, you run the risk of being harassed by the lower elements of society.

Too much blue in moonlight scenes seems to make them less effective than if an artist orchestrates his colors and shifts them to the cool end of the spectrum still retaining the reds and yellows and greens with less saturation and lower values. The form principle still applies in moonlight so shadows shift temperature from the lights. Moonlight is directional like sunlight, so the light, even though much weaker than the sun, is not top down and flat as the light on an overcast day.

Paintings in this article from top to bottom, Charles Rollo Peters, Knud Andreassen Baade, Frank Tenney Johnson, George Sotter, George Sotter, Frederick Remington