Tuesday, February 23, 2016


The illustrator Dean Cornwell was so damn good that when he painted a moonlit scene, he didn't need to show the moon, or the night sky, or any sky at all.

Instead, he was able to convey moonlight using his exquisite control over the hue of skin: 

And the reflections on those bracelets:

and even his treatment of shadow:

Photos courtesy of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration

Cornwell wasn't following any formula. You'll never find a tube of paint labeled "moonlight."  For a different approach, look at Frederick Remington's palette for moonlight:

 Another painter, William Metcalf, offers a third treatment:

But perhaps the most luminous painting I've ever seen is this illustration by N.C. Wyeth, at the Brandywine Museum in Pennsylvania:

Reproductions don't do it justice, but Wyeth treats light differently on the billowing sails, the water, and the sea spray.  

Contrast Wyeth's close, careful observation of the properties of light with the rough violence of that long horizontal scrape of a palette knife through thickly applied white paint:

 I think Wyeth's painting is nothing short of brilliant.

There's a lot of magic in that moonlight.


MORAN said...

That Cornwell is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Never forget my first visit to the Brandywine and seeing the originals of NCW's . In a book repro , a moon would consist of a dull yellow dot - in reality fashioned from 6 or 7 shades and thick impasto .

Al McLuckie

Anthony Z said...

That Wyeth is amazing! I swear I can smell the saltwater looking at that.

Paul Sullivan said...

David, the subject of moonlight and color is most interesting and you've included the work of some excellent artists. However, I have to comment on the work of Dean Cornwell, one of my favorites since I was a kid.

It is interesting note that during his life time Cornwell was noted for at least three different styles. Personally, I think his earlier work is the most interesting. His moonlight illustration is an example of this earlier work and it is a beauty. His work of this time carries bold brush work, spontaneous passages and magnificent draftsmanship with a painterly look. I'm guessing but this work was probably printed in black and white. It was said that he usually painted his illustrations in full color even though most of his early work was reproduced in black and white. His sense of values was so sharp that he could do this with confidence.

Another quality of Cornwell's early work was the beautiful vignette forms that he used in designing his illustrations. We see that in the painting posted. When viewing vignette illustrations—especially those of the 20s and before— it is good to keep in mind that the hard, white edge-work that was painted in some places was painted to indicate the "cut-off", or extreme contours of a vignette for the negative retoucher. At times this can look slightly crude or distracting. In places, we can see that on the work of Cornwell, Leyendecker and many others. When shot as a photo engraving, most white areas of a vignette would pick up a half tone dot. The hard, white edges of a vignette gave the negative retoucher a definite point to begin to eliminate extraneous dots. The soft edges were much trickier.

chris bennett said...

Nice post David, thank you. It is indeed interesting how that wonderful early Cornwell vignette achieves a sense of moonlight without the usual clues - how it does not come across as a reproduction with a very bad blue colour cast.

I can't give you any reliable technical answers as to how the effect is achieved as I have never painted a moonlight picture. But I was sorely tempted to last summer - I was standing in my conservatory one night and the plants were throwing shadows of their leaves across the floor from the light of a full moon. Maybe I'll have the courage to do it now. :)

kev ferrara said...


Thanks for the great close up shots of these classics!

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Agreed. In an era where few artists-- or audiences-- appreciate the value of mastering light, color, anatomy and other elements of painting, a look back at Cornwell is an important lesson. Even limited to a vignette against a white background, Cornwell has multiple ways of telling his story. Note too what he conveys with the angle of the woman's head and the expression on her face, and the distance between her and the man on the bench. But those are a whole different category of strength.

Al McLuckie-- I had the exact same reaction when I saw them. The NCW Treasure Island series at the Brandywine Museum glows right off the wall. That series by itself is a reason for traveling great distances to visit the museum.

Anthony Zierhut-- I hope you have a chance to see how impressive it is in person; it's a great big oil painting, done during the era when illustrators and fine artists had the same training. And it is, as I said,, just about the most luminous painting I've ever seen.

David Apatoff said...

Paul Sullivan-- Thanks for the thoughtful appreciation of Cornwell. You are right on all counts. This painting was from his early period in the 1920s, which I agree was his best. It was originally printed in black and white, yet came across convincingly as moonlight. The Kelly Collection of American illustration follows the clear line of influence from Howard Pyle to Harvey Dunn to Cornwell. Pyle used to tell his early students that they needed to master color because even though magazines of the day could not reproduce color accurately and economically, the technology was evolving fast, and one day color would become important. We see Cornwell straddling that great divide; some of his earlier paintings were painted in color but reproduced in black and white. But by the end of his career, color was everywhere.

Chris Bennett-- Do it! I'd love to see what you come up with.

Kev Ferrara-- As you know so well, the details on these old paintings make all the difference in the world. I've seen reproductions of both the Cornwell and the Wyeth before, but never in a way that enables you to see how the paint is applied. That is a totally different experience.

Mike Rhode said...

David, I've got the new Cornwell book but haven't had a chance to look at it yet. You seen it?

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff -- Perhaps I will! I already have a title: 'Moonbeams in a Glass Garden'. :)

Anonymous said...

अर्जुन said…
Never the Twain Shall Meet …it wowed you in Cosmo, now have it thrill you on the big screen!

re The new Cornwell book. I looked at the online preview, the drawing on page 197 is by Walter Beach Humphrey, a study for his "Hovey murals" in Dartmouth's Thayer Dining Hall, painted between 1937 and 1939. I highlighted this 3 or 4 times at the Illus-Mag & Today's Inspiration FB groups …nobody seems to really care. D.A., maybe you can include it in one of your posts …just to make it "official." ~ अर्जुन

kev ferrara said...


If you are talking about this study I don’t see it in the book. Your smoke signals must have gotten through.

Anonymous said...


That's it! ~ अर्जुन

Anonymous said...

and speaking of N.C.

the D.A. said,"during the era when illustrators and fine artists had the same training."

They might not know it, but this here is a Bargue copy. ~ अर्जुन

Plate III, 20

kev ferrara said...


Very interesting find!

CiprianHanga said...

Hey, David, this is a great blog you have here, I'm really glad I've found it! I am an art student atm (not that young, but trying to reinvent myself as and illustrator/concept artist) and the bulk of my inspiration comes from the golden era of illustration. I am sure your blog will provide me a rich bulk of material to admire and learn from. So thanks!

CiprianHanga said...

Sorry for the double-post, but I just noticed I didn't enabled the email follow-up. :)

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन -- Once again, I'm deeply impressed by your mastery of these images in all their iterations. You seem to have the world's greatest visual memory. The movie, Never The Twain Shall Meet, is indeed based upon the Redbook story illustrated by Cornwell (which, despite its beautiful illustrations, is a truly dated and racist bit of treacle). Here's something you didn't know: the final illustration of the series, which shows the hero sailing home to civilization with his white Christian girlfriend, and abandoning his pagan lover, was repainted by Cornwell after it was published. Cornwell substituted the face of his own mistress for the published face of the Christian girlfriend. Cornwell's enraged wife was reputed to have destroyed most of his originals for which his mistress posed, but this is one of the rare examples that snuck through.

Great catch on that Walter Beach Humphrey!

Mike Rhode-- Yes, I have my copy of Dan Zimmer's book right here. Thanks to Dan for putting it out, it was long overdue and is a vast improvement over its predecessor.

CiprianHanga-- Welcome, and good luck with your career ambitions. We look forward to hearing from you in the future.

Rajalakshmi said...

Thank you David for bringing to us so many wonderful works. And your well articulated thoughts on them are a pleasure to read. I am so very glad to have found this blog.