There's a saying that goes, "The darker the shadow, the brighter the light." In reality, darkness only appears darker because of its contrast against light – especially since darkness is the absence of light.

So today, we'll be tackling the darkest of shadows! While it's possible to paint something with more darkness than light (like this night sky tutorial), a painting is always more interesting when there's contrast. The extra illumination will give a much more cosy and warmer feel to the painting.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

I think the number one reason people hesitate to paint night scenes is the extra layers required to paint the darkness due to watercolour's transparent nature. I believe that it's not that difficult to build up your layers as long as you use the right paint colours and the right paper.

There's a common misconception that night-time equals pitch-black darkness, but there's a lot more light than you may think. Just walk down the street at night, or look up towards the sky. You'll find that the streetlights and glowing windows coming from homes or office buildings means that it's never pitch black, and even the night sky is lit up with the moon and stars!

This means there's a lot more to paint than just darkness, so I'll be showing you the basic principles of painting the illusion of night-time, rather than just slapping a layer of black paint on everything.

First, of course, is to find a night scene you'd like to paint. One option is to choose something urban, like a city street at night, very similar to the painting Pedro Alves' created in his Live Demo on the Etchr Studio YouTube channel. It can also be a scene from nature, like fireflies dancing in a forest.

There's pros and cons with both – a city at night will have more lights and more colours, but it can get a little complicated to paint – especially with cars and people enjoying the nightlife.

The countryside will be darker in comparison, but you'll find a softer glow of light such as lampposts or more natural lights provided by the moon or fireflies. There will also be more organic shapes, so it would be easier to paint.

Whatever your night scene is, make sure to pick the right one according to your skill level! If you find that the composition you like is too complex, you can simplify it by cropping the picture to focus on just two or three different elements.

Once you've picked, I recommend doing a quick pencil outline before painting. Draw lightly, and avoid adding too many details – you can paint them in later.

Painting the Lights

Once you're done, the first step is to paint a layer of your light colours. Lights are commonly white or yellow but can even be orange, red or light blue depending on the bulb or filter. White or near-white objects near your light sources will reflect these colours as well, so paint the suitable surfaces facing your light sources the same colour.

Tip: For soft glows of light, wet your paper before adding paint (i.e. the "wet-on-wet" technique). This will spread out the paint for a seamless blend, though keep in mind that this extra water will dilute the paint too and make it lighter than you may have anticipated.

You can keep the glow effect for neon lights or signs by adding a darker colour around the light, but try not to do it while the paper is too wet, or else it will bleed too much. You can also wait for the paint to dry before painting around the lights, then soften the edges by touching the tip of a clean paintbrush to them before they dry completely.

You can strengthen the colours of your lights in separate layers once this first layer is dry. It's not always necessary, but either way, you can decide how vibrant or soft you want your painting to be. It should suit the atmosphere you're trying to achieve, too, so more paint doesn't necessarily mean a better painting!

Painting the Mids

After you're done with the lights, you can paint in the mid-tones. These tend to be the base colours of your night scene, which are, more likely than not, a darkened version of what the object's colour is during the day.

There are 2 ways to do this:

The first is to paint the base colours without factoring in how the darkness changes the colours of your objects before layering your shadows on top. This works well if you have good quality paper, where your underlying paint layers won't be ruined even when you add several extra layers on top!

The second method is to mix a little of your shadow colour into all your base colours. You can use Payne's Grey or a Neutral Tint, depending on your preference.

They will neutralise your colours a little, which is fine. The only areas where you won't have to mix in your shadow colours will, of course, be your light sources. For these, you can stick to the first method instead.

In this sense, going with the first method will be much easier to control, as you don't have to worry about mixing the right colour every time. You can try both methods and see which one you prefer!

Tip: If you happen to have a palette that has the premixed colours you plan to use, then things just got very convenient!

Bonus tip: To be very frank, your first few layers are going to suck. At least, that's always the case for me! Just keep persevering through; I promise you it will be worth it once everything comes together.

Painting the Night

Once your mid-tone layers are dry, you can finally add the darkness. With your shadow colour, add a thin layer to the cast shadows seen on objects closest to your light sources. This will give the illusion of light radiating outwards.

Anything else that's in shadow can also get a layer of paint. You can also decide whether you want the sky to be lighter than the ground or vice versa.

Just make sure that there's a clear contrast between the sky and your buildings, or trees, mountains, etc.! Even though it may not look that way in your picture, it's just a little trick to make the skyline more interesting.

Bonus tip: For cityscapes, I recommend painting the sky darker than the buildings, as the lights of nightlife tend to overwhelm natural lights. For landscapes, I recommend the reverse, as the moon will likely be the brightest light source out there.

For your final layers, mix up a concentrated Payne's Grey or Indigo. These will go in the darkest of darks; the shadows under a car, silhouettes of people that have their back against a light source, etc. This is for getting an even greater contrast for a more dramatic effect!

Of course, you may choose to forego this final layer if you want a more subtle atmosphere. But either way, you'll have created a good night scene, from light to dark!

Cheating (Just a Little!)

Last but not least, here's a little "cheat" – if you find you don't have enough light sources or accidentally painted over some in the previous layers, you can always add back your light using gouache paint. Just make sure that this is the last thing you do, as painting on top of a gouache won't be the same as painting on white paper.

You can even create an artificial "glow" by diluting your gouache paint before adding a softer "ring" around your light source, which should lighten up the underlying layers and create a similar glowing effect. You might end up with a little more texture, though, so be careful if you don't like too much texture in your painting.

Going Gently Into the Night

How was it? Did you end up with a fantastic night scene?

Even if you didn't, it's always a good idea to reflect on what worked well and what didn't. And if it's your first or second or even third time, don't fret too much – the key is practising and studying the way the night affects how we see the world around us.

And that's really what the whole point of this tutorial – to paint a different, more challenging way of seeing the world! But I hope you had fun regardless and are inspired to keep tackling other challenges, no matter how daunting they may seem.

Have you tried painting a night scene before? What do you find most challenging about painting the night? Let us know in the comments below!

Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy.

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