The Moon Lies Fair Upon the Straits

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;

From Dover Beach

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold has always been a favorite poem of mine. Just reciting the opening lines always puts me in a calm, settled mood. These were the words I heard in my head as I painted this moonlight seascape:

The Moon Lies Fair - Oil by Judith Kraus

Now, you may disagree and say the sea doesn’t seem so calm in my painting, and that’s all right. I enjoyed painting this seascape, and I did, indeed, feel calm and thoughtful as I worked on it.

This was a painting with a purpose — a very specific purpose, in fact. One of my greatest weaknesses as an artist is that I tend to shy away from contrasts, especially in my oil paintings. Many times I’ve heard comments that I need a broader range of values, especially at the uppermost and lowermost points of the value scale. In other words, I need darks/blacks, and I need lights/whites.

So, after looking at this reference photo from Pixabay, I challenged myself to paint the scene using black and white — with a touch of cobalt blue mixed in to blend toward a subtle gray.madeira-4279303_960_720

I did crop off a bit of the photo for my painting, leaving out the large pool of dark water in the lower right. As I sketched it out on my canvas, I wanted the burst of spray to be more prominent. Artistic license, right?

I started with a canvas that I’d previously covered with black acrylic. It’s a small painting, by the way — 9 x 12.  My first step was to cover the canvas with a very thin glaze of white oil paint which I then wiped with a cloth. At this point, I tried something different. I switched to a set of water-soluble oils I want to work with more.

Using a very fine brush, I outlined the basic shapes of the scene with white, used a brush that’s a bit like a shaving brush to establish the focal point, and then I painted and blended the sky. Here’s what the painting looked like then. It a lot of ways, I like this “rough draft” better than the finished painting. Maybe it’s because the contrasts are so dramatic here.

In Progress (2)

In the end, I was pleased with the painting, but not satisfied with it. I was pleased that I had done what I set out to do — to create a seascape in black and white, making sure I did have those light and dark extremes. I was less pleased by my refusal to walk away from the easel. I kept looking at the painting, picking up one brush or another and tweaking things. I tweaked the cliffs – a lot. I tweaked the water and the rock in the foreground. Oops! Nope. I don’t like that. More stepping back. More tweaking. With each tweak I seemed to like the painting less and less, so I forced myself to put down the brushes.

By the way, although Dover Beach was very much in my head and heart as I painted, the scene is actually in the Madeira Islands off the coast of Portugal.

Definitely there are improvements that could be made to my nocturnal seascape, but for the time being I’m leaving it as it is. I accomplished what I set out to do, and achieving a goal — however imperfectly — is always something to be glad about. Yes, I’m glad I created this painting, and I learned a lot during the process. That’s a double-win for me.


    1. Dover Beach has been a favorite poem since I first read it many, many years ago. I love the way the poem makes me feel, and I wanted to draw on those feelings for inspiration as I painted. I’m happy that you like it. 🙂

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