How to Paint a Moonlit Harbour: Step-by-Step Painting Tutorial

Morning class, this week we’re going to look at how to paint this beautiful moonlit harbour scene using acrylics in this two-part painting study. It’s of Smeaton’s Pier in St Ives, Cornwall, and the reference is a photo taken on a full strawberry moon.

This tutorial is all about colour perception.

Painting landscapes in low light, dusk or evening, makes judging colours tricky. The value range is much more compressed, and we have to overcome our perceived ‘memory’ of an object which can be very strong.

Instead of painting the sand ‘yellow’, we have to paint it a dull purple. And what we know as a bright white sail is now a mid-dusky blue in the evening light. It’s a bit more challenging to focus on what the colours actually are, rather than what you think they should be. It can result in paintings that are too light, too contrasting and not subdued enough.

3 things you’ll learn

  1. Importance of value relationships in your composition
  2. Balancing warms and colour complementary colours
  3. Using glazes and glazing medium to enhance the glow

To try and counteract this perception, I use a tonal viewfinder to try and perceive colour on its own, in isolation, rather than trying to judge it from the whole scene.

So grab a brew, a couple of biscuits, and you can download a reference image below to follow along with the video!

Step-by-step Moonlit Painting Tutorial

Part One – Drawing out and judging value relationships

Part Two – Balancing moonlight and streetlights

Materials you will need:

  • 10 x 8-inch canvas or board


I use Artist Quality acrylics from Golden Paints and Winsor & Newton Acrylics, but you follow along with any brand.

For the coloured ground:

  • Burnt Umber (Golden Paints)
  • Ultramarine Blue (Golden Paints)
  • Titanium White (Golden Paints)

For the painting:

  • Titanium White (Golden Paints)
  • Cadmium Yellow Light (Golden Paints)
  • Permanent Alizarin Crimson (Winsor & Newton)
  • Ultramarine Blue (Golden Paints)
  • Burnt Umber (Golden Paints)


Extra tools

  • An HB Pencil – (I use a Kuru Toga Roulette Mechanical Pencil 0.5mm Uniball)
  • Acrylic pen – I use an F W Mixed Media Marker filled with Sepia High Flow Acrylic
  • Acrylic Glazing Liquid Gloss (Golden Paints)
  • Palette Knife (I use a diamond shape size 45 by RGM)
  • Metal dipper or small pot for mediums
  • Greyscale value strip for judging colours
  • Jam Jar for water

Reference Image

step-by-step tutorial acrylics
You can download a 8 x 10 inch reference here

Finished Painting

Will Kemp, St Ives Strawberry Moon, Acrylic on Canvas

Hope you enjoy it & Happy Christmas!

This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. Ann D

    Can hardly wait to paint this! Thanks Will and Happy Holidays to you!

    1. Will Kemp

      Good one Ann, really hope it turns out well, the glazing section is great fun! have a lovely holiday season too.

  2. Patricia Ashton

    Lovely! Sooo soothing and cool. I could almost feel a light breeze coming in as you moved through the painting. I so enjoyed watching you paint. Thank you Will. Presently I am working on portraits but I love seeing you in action.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Patricia, very kind of you to say so, glad it gave a nice interlude to your portraits.

  3. Joanne Berardi

    Thanks so much! I look forward to painting this and Happy Christmas and Cheers to you and yours

    1. Will Kemp

      Good one Joanne, really hope you enjoy it.

  4. Ann D

    I forgot to ask where I can get a tonal map strip like the one you are using in this tutorial. Thanks again!!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Ann, this is a home-made one just printed out.There is usually one on the downloads for the courses.

  5. Sue Mahy

    What a great Christmas present, Will; a lovely project for the holidays!

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Sue, really hope you enjoy it.

  6. Jennifer Stewart

    Thanks Will, it’s fab, as all your courses are. I love these blues! Happy Christmas to you as well.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks very much Jennifer, really hope your harbour painting turns out well.

  7. Grace Hanney

    This is a lovely surprise. I love painting night scenes (and dawn & dusk too) and will definitely tackle this as soon as the Christmas guests are gone from my studio/spare room. Merry Christmas from Canada!

    1. Will Kemp

      Good one Grace, really hope you enjoy it, hope you have a lovely Christmas.

  8. Ani

    Another excellent class, thank you for your generosity!
    How would you paint this in oil! Still in layers?

    1. Will Kemp

      Hi Ani, yes, I would approach it much the same.

  9. Linda

    I appreciate you, Will, for offering this excellent tutorial. I hope to make use of the information you relayed and techniques you demonstrated. If I paint in oils, what would you recommend to get the glaze effect you achieved with the Acrylic Glazing Liquid Gloss? Thank you!

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Linda, my pleasure. You can use a glazing medium for Oils. Either a trantional medium like a Damar Glaze Medium (Michael Harding Makes a ncie one) or a modern glaze medium that uses an Alykd resin, so is quicker drying like fluid Galkyd Lite.

  10. Kate Claisse

    Thank you, Will. I love this scene! I am looking forward to trying it over the holidays. Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Kate, and to you! really hope you enjoy it.

  11. Gloria Wheeler

    Absolutely beautiful – as always Will. Many thanks for this and all your wonderful courses. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Gloria, lovely to hear from you, so hope you’re keeping well. Have a wonderful Christmas!

  12. Camille Healy

    Thank you Will, A lovely scene and a lovely gift. Happy holidays to you.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Camille, really hope you enjoy it.

  13. Stephanie

    Hello, Thank you Will! I’m excited to start the Harbour Moon:) I enjoyed the beginner’s acrylic painting course. Looking forward to taking another course in the New Year. Where would I find a greyscale value strip for judging colours? Can I purchase online? I’m in Canada.

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Stephanie, it’s a homemade one that I printed out at home. Drop me an email, and I can send one through.

  14. Bob Adams

    Merry Christmas from Arkansas USA. Thank you for your generosity Will. I will attempt this painting as it will be my first in over a year since recovering from a near death experience from Covid 19. The therapy will be terrific. God Bless.

    1. Will Kemp

      Wow Bob, so pleased you are on the mend, painting therapy is the way to go!

  15. Neil Collins

    I loved this. Thanks for walking out onto St. Ives beach for us all and taking a photo. I wish I didn’t live so far from the sea in Cheshire. I also liked the hints and tips that you gave throughout the process. I’ll be able to use them when I paint other things. My Moonlight Harbour is currently on my wall (not quite as good as yours!)

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Neil, it was my pleasure! I’m glad you were able to pick up some useful tips. It’s really great that your painting of Moonlight Harbour is now on the wall – I’m sure it looks amazing!


  16. Fiona Bisset

    Thank you so much for another very generous tutorial. I learned so much, esp about all the tones, and underpainting the moon and light areas with white.

    1. Will Kemp

      Great stuff Fiona, so pleased it was helpful.

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