Spook Lights

Growing up, I was exposed to a bit of supernatural lore. My mother was the curious sort, more or less an open-minded skeptic with an interest in many different things. I recall hearing about the Seneca Spook Light, one of those odd phenomena that now actually has its own website. Although technically — according to the website info — the light is actually in Oklahoma, the stories I heard as a child spoke of Joplin, Missouri, right here in the state where I was born and raised. In other words, it was close enough that visiting the light was within the realm of possibility.

So, what is the spook light?

The ball of fire, described as varying from the size of a baseball to a basketball, dances and spins down the center of the road at high speeds, rising and hovering above the treetops, before it retreats and disappears. Others have said it sways from side to side, like a lantern being carried by some invisible force. In any event, the orange fire-like ball has reportedly been appearing nightly for well over 100 years.

I never have gone to Joplin or the surrounding area to view the spook light, having learned long ago that it’s probably “swamp gas” or methane. Other theories are that it’s refracted lights from cars on a highway in the area, but that wouldn’t account for sightings dating back into the 1800’s. My bet is on the swamp gas.

I thought about the Seneca Spook Light this morning — and swamp gases, as well — as I worked at my easel. I’d started the day with another color theory lesson, this one on secondary colors. I mixed green, orange, and violet using the “correct” mixtures based on color biases, and as part of my learning process, I mixed “incorrect” mixtures too. It’s helpful for me to see both right and wrong and be able to differentiate between the two. Of course, as with many things in art, there really isn’t a right or a wrong. It all depends on what we’re wanting to do with our colors.

For the most part, all I’m wanting to do at the moment is to learn more about color theory and color mixing, so on that count, I succeeded. Just as I’d done with primary colors previously, I grabbed a canvas (this time a very small one) and slapped on paint. Quite literally. Unlike the Primary Madness abstract I’d created, however, my secondary color canvas wasn’t very pleasant to look at. The dark violet took over the canvas and made it all seem off balance.

Still, a good learning experience.

But then I looked at my palette. I had lots of lovely colors there: all my primaries, and two mixes of each secondary. Earlier I’d downloaded a landscape scene as part of a “painting challenge”. It’s a lovely scene:

I had my palette laid out, so why not grab another canvas and paint this challenge? I decided to try this as an alla prima painting, completing it all at once. I got off to a good start, grabbing a bit of my Naples yellow to mix with white and lay in a gentle sky. Oh, it looked gorgeous!

So, then, tell me, how did I go from a gorgeous beginning for this autumn-themed painting, and end up instead with the ghostly Seneca Spook Light?

About the only similarity between where I started and where I ended up is the area of trees on the left. Again, what on earth happened?

All was going well. I used a pale green to shape the land area, more of my creamy Naples yellow mixed with white for the road. I used my “dull orange” (mixed from lemon yellow and alizarin crimson) to add darker areas to the road and to begin shaping the “rockier” areas of grass. I mixed a violet with a dull green — deliberately — to come up with a nice brown that harmonized with the rest of the colors. I played with almost all my reds, yellows, and oranges to create foliage.

But then things stopped going so well. I’d lost the “misty background” effect I started with, and I still needed to add the darker trees on the right background area. I’d probably approached the painting from the wrong direction, so what to do now? Well, here’s a hint. Wiping it away and trying to re-do it wasn’t a very good idea. In the end I got so frustrated that I did something I haven’t done in a very long time. Yep. I grabbed a rag and wiped away everything I’d painted. The result was a canvas toned to a vague muddy brown hue.

Determined to keep going, I started once more putting paint on the canvas, but I was feeling discouraged. No way could I paint the scene. So I just slapped paint on here and there. It wasn’t pretty, but it was carthartic. Then, having come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t paint that lovely November scene, I switched gears. Time to just forget about creating art and have fun.

Why not have fun playing with a palette knife? It was then that I re-discovered sgraffito. I can recall doing this as a child. We would color an entire page in crayon and then “scratch-out” an image. It was an interesting technique back then, but I wasn’t good at drawing, so I didn’t really enjoy sgraffito.

Now, I’m slightly better at drawing, and overall, I think I have a greater “art sense”. I know a little about composition and design, and as I started scraping away the top layers of my blue-black paints, the brilliant reds and oranges showed through. I liked what I saw, or actually, it was more that I liked what I felt.

It felt creepy. It felt spooky. In its own way, it felt creative, and if nothing else, it’s certainly different from my usual oil painting. It’s exciting, too, because despite having failed at what I intended to do, I succeeded in learning (or, at least, re-learning) an art technique that I find intriguing.

This first “sgraffito” painting was accidental, really, so now I want to explore the technique more and learn to use it intentionally. It’s a bit like scratchboard, too, but in a much more colorful way. Now, just as I was curious and excited about the Seneca Spook Light as a child, I’m curious and excited about sgraffito art.

Have you done sgraffito or scratchboard art? Any tips to share?


  1. So, you’ve discovered a couple of things—allá prima doesn’t work all that well when you work with too many layers of too many colors; and that a palette knife is much handier than a brush when you do find yourself in that situation. I’ve done allá prima with very little success so I am a terrible source for advice. I’ve also done zero scratchboard or sgraffito except for one class I took in which the medium was oil pastels. They were perfect! You could put endless layers down and still smush them around and scratch out to different depths without having any color interfere with another. Even better, you could do it on the cheapest substrate of all, paper. Even though they’re “oil” pastels. They turned out some pretty wild stuff like I’ve never done before or since. You can take a peek here: https://allifarkasartist.wordpress.com/2013/02/09/blast-from-the-past-circa-1993-94/

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    1. Yes, oil pastels would be great for sgraffito. More and more I have to say that alla prima painting just isn’t for me, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why I don’t do well with plein air. If nothing else, I need more time to think about what I’m painting, to assess how it’s going and to work step by step. I certainly did have fun playing with my palette knife, first to lay paint down and then to take it back off! It was another of those “mad scientist” sort of days, just trying a lot of different things to see what happened. In the end, I liked the “spookiness” of this scene, especially the contrasts between the dark blue-black and the fiery oranges and reds. I’ve been playing with “scratching-off” a little more, and it is interesting. I’m not doing much more than doodling with it, but it is fun. And I love the work you did with all those colors! I remember from the one project I did in scratchboard that there are “rainbow” scratchboards available — so that when you scratch a line off, you’ll get a variety of different colors showing through. I might have to do a post about scratchboard. I still have the set of tools I bought for the project I did. They would work well with oil pastels, too.

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  2. I like the “spooky” work. I like it a great deal. I did a child’s version of scratchboard when I was, you know, a child. I recall I needed to scratch, so to speak, until I was finished and then stop. Otherwise, I would have worried over something (like worrying over wool) that was well enough considered done. I have a tendency to overwork details, sometimes.

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    1. I wasn’t too successful with “scratchwork” when I was a child because I couldn’t draw at all. At least now I can draw a little better, so it’s much more fun. As for over-working, oh, I hear you there. It’s hard to walk away sometimes.

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  3. It always amazes me what artists create from just a box of colours. As a viewer and commenter rather than a doer, I agree with others that the finsihed product is great. You’re right, it does not on any level capture the scene you were after, the picture is serene, calm Autumn, the painting you’ve created does indeed have spooky undertones but it also has energy, mystery and depth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, and while it’s sometimes discouraging to “miss the mark” so completely with what I started out doing, it’s still fun to discover something else truly “lurking in the shadows”. Art is interesting, to say the least.

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