The Artist Life

The Master of Moonlight

The Master of Moonlight

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There is an otherworldly magic in a moonlit scene. We love to paint at night under the moons steady, cool glow. Perhaps the best known modern painter of moonlight in American art was Frank Tenney Johnson, 1874 – 1939. These paintings were so successful that it was not long before he was also illustrating book covers for western novels, notably the Zane Grey books.

Two Figures at Dusk by Frank Tenney Johnson, oil painting, 1929.

Johnson loved to paint cowboys and Indians going about their daily lives, especially the Navajo. On an early western trip, Johnson noticed that the Navajo Indians he had been studying preferred to stay indoors during the intense heat of the day and did their traveling and moving around at night. This crucial observation led him to draw and paint the Indians and cowboys who lived and worked in the western night, especially under the bright, clear moonlight. Using canvasses laboriously prepared with chalk and vermilion, and left to dry for up to a year, he developed techniques which allowed him to create stunning nocturne paintings of remarkable depth and color. He quickly realized that nocturnes were a subject that he could make his own.

These remarkable paintings often featured figures lit by moonlight, campfires, kerosene lamps or, as in one painting, a cowboy on a horse lighting a cigarette with a match. It wasnt long before he abandoned commercial work to paint full time and sell his work in the top galleries of the day. Today, these paintings are still considered the archetype for the western nocturne. None exemplifies this better than Two Figures at Dusk. Painting the moonlight takes some reshuffling of the studio schedule to allow for nighttime hours, but it is worth the effort. Adjusting to the limited values and limited colors of the night takes practice, but perhaps no better instruction can be found than that gained from studying the original oil paintings of the master of the moonlight, Frank Tenney Johnson.

If youd like to try your hand at painting a nocturne, then youll need our new eBook (also available in softcover edition), A Primer on Painting Nocturnes. Filled with examples of night paintings, technical tips, night palette colors and a step-by-step demonstration. Only available at: The Artists Road.

–John and Ann

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