“Painting a Night Scene” Full Demonstration [+Video]

In today’s demonstration I’d like to talk about value patterns from slightly different angle. When discussing value patterns, usually the conversation is quite abstract and perhaps even difficult to grasp. This painting should provide a very reasonable example of when a need to consider value patterns arises.

The subject for today’s painting is mostly made up, in other words, “inspired” by a real life scene. That is why I don’t include photograph here. It is irrelevant to today’s demonstration as the result differs too greatly from the reference.

As you can see from the line sketch below, in this stage it remains open to be used for any value pattern whatsoever. There is no limit to what this scene can become. Depending on the color and value scheme, this can be turned into a sunset, sunrise, noon or night. Since only shape distribution is outlined here, we can very effectively work with them to achieve our goal. And we should always try and think about what we want to say before putting paint to paper. Sometimes it “comes to us”, but most every other time we need to plan ahead.

Line sketch
Line sketch

I only seldom plan my values on paper beforehand, but I do think about them and plan in my mind. I am fortunate that I can maintain the focus in following my idea throughout the painting process. Early on though I used to be very strict in planning my value pattern and I would follow it to the letter.

As with any painting, the key to painting a successful night scene is in selecting the correct “key”, or value pattern for the particular situation. Since we try to suggest the effect of night, it makes sense to paint in what we call a “low” key. We can use fairly high chroma colors and the painting will still read as or night. It makes sense to tailor the color scheme to the conditions too, so the scene overall is more convincing. I work with only a few colors in this demonstration. Notice that I started with pure rose color, followed by pure blue, followed by pure violet, finally mixing a rich transparent black from the darkest and most transparent paints on my palette.

A very effective technique for dealing with this painting is layering. Both wet-into-wet and direct painting could actually work really well here but layering is my choice because it allows me to think about the value distribution as I go. I start my painting from a very high key, of course, lowering it with each successive layer. Since low key painting is my ultimate goal here, I can add and add layers without the fear of going too far.

©2017 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.
©2017 Daniel Novotny. Watercolor on Paper, 11 x 15 in.

And there is the finished painting. It was fun to paint this flat group of shapes. You can see that I overlapped the individual planes so they suggest depth without using perspective.  Notice also the lower contrast that is typical of a night scene. Such phenomena need to be observed in real life and translated into painting. I covered all my whites and used subtle plane changes. Despite my particular example being very expressive in the shape composition, you can use the information about value patterns and color selection in your own paintings, regardless of the level of abstraction present in your own style.

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Feel free to recreate this painting in your own time or ask any question you may have.



  1. Angel September 18, 2017 at 22:28

    Your lesson is very well developed and it demonstrates how to abstractly paint an idea using selected key values in a layering format. I like the fact that you used a simple sketch and that after going through the layering process using few colors you are able to convey a wonderful painting at the end. This looks easy to the untrained eye but a lot of thinking and development on the fly as you demonstrated in the video can be felt. Thanks for posting and sharing such an interesting article.

    1. Daniel Novotny September 19, 2017 at 11:13

      Hello again Angel,

      Thank you for the kind words of appreciation. I may go a little bit more in-depth with this concept in a future article. I have neglected value breakdown here so that may make for a nice and short follow-up article on “keying” a painting.



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