Painting in the Dark

Full Moon Art Retreat

About twice a year, on a weekend when the moon is full, I run a three-day art retreat on a sheep station just west of Tenterfield. We use the shearing shed as a studio, sleep and eat in the shearers’ quarters, and go out into the field to paint and draw. Amongst other activities, one afternoon we paint the vista from a hill, overlooking the valley. One night we light the fire in the dining room and make art in, and of, the flames’ warmth. And one night we take our gear out and paint under the light of the full moon.

It’s incredibly peaceful, and also quite difficult. The full moon lights up the night. There are no other lights, except in the house over the hill, a distance way. It takes some time for our eyes to adjust; then it feels as bright as day. Bright enough to walk around in safely, with our moon-shadows, and also to draw by. 

I arm my students with thick, black, drawing paper, and pencils – white, grey and black. We head out into the paddock, position ourselves so the moonlight falls over our shoulder onto the page, and sit.

In front of us, the sky is lighter than you’d imagine, for night-time. The trees are shadow-shapes, and the paddocks show their day colours, faintly. The world is reduced to broad shapes that, with closer inspection, yield up their finer details.

The trick is to draw an outline first, in white pencil, onto the black paper. Then layer and layer more pencil marks, colouring broad tonal areas, until the darks and lights align with what’s before us. The longer we spend, the more we can see, and the more variations of tone, colour and detail we can record. Soon we’re using the greys and black pencils to define and adjust. It’s a different sort of drawing process that I find both challenging and satisfyingly engrossing.

I have to trust the process

I have to trust that by continuing on, as best I can in the circumstances, all the way to the edge of the pages, into the night, layer upon layer, until it’s time to peacefully creep into my swag, I will achieve what I set out to. In this case, spending time under the full moon, trying a new technique, and maybe a finished artwork.

It’s peaceful, out there in the dark, it feels like some sort of re-alignment after the time we spend in, around, and governed by artificial light, for every other night of our lives.

What colour is black?

One time instead of the black pencil I picked up a very dark blue. I set out to draw the road lit up by the moon, snaking up the hill towards the house. There was a point when I wanted to make the intense dark under the trees even deeper than the black paper I’d left. I pulled out my “black” but it wasn’t working so well. I pushed harder, and more. Even in the moon’s half-light I could see that it wasn’t dark enough.

Next morning, I saw why. The shadows were blue. And not where I’d have put them had I been drawing in daylight, when I could see “properly”. The addition of that piece of accidental colour, and my repeated efforts at getting it dark enough, had created something out of the box.
I loved it.

Which brings me to why I'm telling you this story

It’s about the story of working from the real world, rather than just photos.
About being IN the landscape instead of drawing from a replica of it, which is all a photograph is.

It’s about how picking up a blue pencil by “mistake” is not a mistake, it’s a gift”

Drawing anywhere with unusual tools, deliberately being a bit out of our comfort zone, has the result of re-concentrating our concentration. Every now and then it’s good to shift the parameters of comfort. Try it. Try painting with your non-favoured hand, choose colours with a blindfold on, paint with a brush 1 metre long, made of twigs. Next full moon, try drawing at night.

About how sometimes it’s good to feel unsure of the result;

Experiencing the half-blindness of moonlight-drawing changes only one of your senses. We still have memory, experience, understanding. We still have the touch of the pencil, the sound of it scritchy-scratching across the paper, the feel of the strength of our mark. We can experience the night: hear the sounds of a far-away night-birds, a car on the distant road: we can smell the dust, an incoming breeze, camp-fire wood-smoke.

Why, in these dark times, just keep doing what you can do;

Trust the process. Trust that you know how to make art, even if you aren’t sure how it will turn out. Leave judgement until tomorrow. It will be immediately obvious then that it has either worked, or it hasn’t. But if you fret now, spending creative energy on worry instead of what’s in front of you, you’re sacrificing the bits of the experience that are irreplaceable. The peace that comes from concentrated meditative creativity, but also the memory of that peace that can be called upon later, in less peaceful times.

And it’s about why our art practice is so much more than just the results we exhibit in the gallery.

It’s the road we took to get there, and the feelings we had while we were doing it. Let’s make time to enjoy what we do. No-one can do it for us, although they can copy our results. When we spend time as artists, at whichever easel our creativity rests on, we are in a unique situation to create not only art objects or ideas. When we make art, we are also creating a thought process, a way through worry, a time and place for peace. Notice when it happens for you. And do more of it.

CPorter Moonlight Sketch 2019 coloured pencil on black paper 12x12cm (Collection of the artist)

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Previously I’ve written about how to start a creative project. This article is about the other end of creativity – after the inspiration, and past the perspiration. How finishing a project has its own place in the process and why it’s important.

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