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Light Up the Night

Set your watercolor nocturnes aglow with these tips for painting lit windows, street lamps, and more.

By Lynn Ferris

City Lights by Lynn Ferris
Abstract shapes within the lit windows of City Lights (transparent watercolor on paper, 21×29) suggest what’s going on within the rooms.

As an artist, I’ve always been drawn to strong light and its ability to bring drama to otherwise ordinary subjects, but it wasn’t until a trip with my daughter to Lincoln, Neb., that I recognized the potential night scenes offered. Our busy schedule disrupted my usual vacation practice of taking afternoon walks with my camera in search of strong cast shadows to shoot as painting references. Instead, I was forced to snap my pictures at night in the city’s downtown area.

While at first I assumed these shots would provide only a temporary sidetrack from my regular subject matter, I quickly came to notice the new appreciation they gave me for looking at the interplay of light and dark. Since that trip to Nebraska, I’ve made a point of regularly tackling night scenes in my work, a practice that has helped me become a more astute observer not only of the dark but of light as well.

Multiple Sources of Light

One thing that sets night scenes apart from other subject matter is that, unless you’re painting a rural landscape in moonlight, night scenes almost always incorporate multiple sources of light. This may seem intimidating, but having several light sources can actually be an advantage—as well as an opportunity for play. Rather than forcing a literal depiction of the scene and its varied lights (which will change at any given moment), think of yourself as designing with light and dark, using the different sources of light to direct the viewer’s eye around your composition.

Start with Windows

I recommend that you approach your night scene by way of the light sources, beginning with lit windows. Because windows are among the lightest areas in any night scene, placing them early helps you define your patterns. Also, the reflective sparkles or highlights in the windows constitute some of your true whites, so you’ll want to establish them before you put down any paint. Painting the lit windows first also allows you to set down an underpainting for the entire picture, as explained in Painting Lit Windows in Watercolor, below.

Demo: Painting Lit Windows in Watercolor

1. HIGHLIGHTS: True whites are critical to the appearance of shine and sparkle, so first, map out the highlights in your windows with masking fluid, alternating between circles, lines, and rectangles set on a diagonal for a natural, irregular look (I recommend working on cold-pressed paper). Also mask the centers of any streetlights. Because these true whites will draw your viewer’s eye, consider where the painting’s focal point will be and make sure these whites direct the eye accordingly.

2. DIFFUSED LIGHT/UNDERPAINTING: Once you’ve masked the whites, wet the entire page and, with broad strokes, add bands of diffused light. I used cadmium yellow, alizarin crimson and just a bit of phthalo blue. These bands of color will become the lit areas of the windows, implying “something inside” without spelling it out exactly.

By covering the entire page, not just the window areas, these colors also become your underpainting, ensuring variety and nuance in subsequent layers of paint. The overall look you’re going for here is of a light, flowing, somewhat gold diffusion of color. The underpainting should be soft-edged, setting the tone for the shapes you’ll lay on top.

Take care not to blend your colors—otherwise, you’ll end up with gray. For this reason, I recommend holding off on using a device like a hairdryer until you’re sure the colors have set.

3. ABSTRACT FORMS: Finally, you want to bring depth and interest to the insides of the windows. For this application, layer light bands of transparent paint over certain sections, looking for places to introduce abstract forms. These forms imply objects or people, as interpreted by the viewer’s imagination.

I like to use phthalo blue, cobalt blue, alizarin crimson and just a bit of phthalo green—but you can use any combination that suits you. Consider adding a few dots of cadmium red to add an extra pop here and there.

Move on to Street Lamps

After the windows and the underpainting are set, the next light sources to consider are street lamps. You’ll address them as you apply your first layer of dark value. I like to use burnt sienna from the tube for this because that color lifts well, which becomes important later when I simulate the soft, radiant halos of lamplight. You can follow my process in Glowing Street Lamp in Watercolor, below.

Demo: Glowing Street Lamp in Watercolor

1. REMOVE MASK: You’ll have masked the area of the lamp when you began your painting (preferably on coldpressed paper). After you’ve laid in the underpainting and are ready to begin the darks, remove the masking fluid.

2. WASH AND LIFT: Prepare your wash and begin applying it to the paper, being careful to avoid your lit windows. Notice the nuance the color takes on as a result of your underpainting. (The lit windows will also begin to take form as the contrast with the darks builds.) As you approach an area with a street lamp, cover it with the wash as you do other areas, but then, with a round brush, quickly drop in some clear water where the center of the bulb would be. Dry your brush slightly and then use it to lift color from the center of the bulb and in a ring around the bulb. Lifting the color in this way moderates the white of the bulb and creates a soft-edged halo.

3. ADD SOFT-EDGED LAYERS: Next, apply more pigment to the perimeter of the light, continuing to drop in and lift water from the center until the soft-edged halo becomes clearly visible and remains. As you add layers of dark values, repeat this process of softening the edges by adding more water and more pigment, lifting and adding until the bulb appears to glow. Allow a small area of true white to remain in the middle, but soften that area as you approach its outer edges.

A Full Range of Values

As you continue layering, I recommend shifting to a mixed burnt sienna made from a base of alizarin crimson with a bit of cadmium yellow and a dab of phthalo blue. This mixed pigment will offer more opportunity for color changes than a tube color, and it will also stay put better as you continue to apply layers.

If the burnt sienna isn’t getting as dark as you’d like, switch to a dark violet or indigo made with phthalo blue and alizarin crimson for some of the darker areas. This mixture makes a wonderfully transparent, rich dark that, when layered over browns, retains its warmth without becoming muddy. Be sure when you paint these layers that you continue lifting from the edges of the halos surrounding the street lamps.

Finishing Touches

The details added at the end really make a night scene come to life. Once your painting is absolutely dry, you can go back in with a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (the original, with no added detergents or chemicals) to lift details, sparkles, and reflections. Begin by placing a piece of masking tape over the area you want to lift and, using an inexpensive snap-off knife from a hardware store, create a stencil with the tape. For wires, cut a long line, then lift half of the tape and offset it just a bit to create a fine separation. Dampen the Magic Eraser with clean water and lift. Blot the area with a paper towel before removing the tape. 

Night Market by Lynn Ferris
In Night Market (transparent watercolor on paper, 21×29), wires and lines, both lifted and painted, move the viewer’s eye around the painting.

Last, you’ll want to bring in a few fine black lines and accents, such as wires, railings, or cracks in the pavement. This will add contrast and visual interest. Using a script brush loaded with black made from phthalo green and alizarin crimson, paint in your accents, using a light touch.


SURFACE: Arches 300-lb. cold-pressed paper
BRUSHES: Loew-Cornell series 7750 2-inch Sky Wash flat (for wetting large areas), American Journey ¾-inch interlocked nylon flat (for underpainting and applying dark washes), Loew-Cornell series 7020 No. 14 Ultra round (for general painting and lifting), Silver Brush series 2407S Ultra Mini 10/0 script (for applying masking fluid and painting fine lines)
OTHER: Daler-Rowney Art Masking Fluid, mini snap-off knife, masking tape, Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (original)

About the Artist

Lynn Ferris, a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society, and the Florida Watercolor Society, teaches workshops across the United States. In another demo from Lynn, learn how she creates depth and luminosity by limiting her palette to three colors and emphasizing the shadows

This article originally appeared in Artist’s Magazine.

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