Monte Dolack: Magic Light


Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was originally published in the Great Falls Tribune.


Evening. Morning. In the gloaming when the light is soft and low.  Magic light is painter’s light.  It is the light that artists, poets and photographers anticipate, waiting through the long hours of “ordinary” daylight. Also known as the magic hour when the sun is near or below the horizon, it is a time when shapes simplify and the details merge with elongated shadows and reveal warm, reddish and violet tones.

Making a return in the past few years, tonalism, an American style of painting once very popular in the mid nineteenth century, has been rediscovered. Tonalist landscape paintings and their golden hour light were America’s most valued and sought after images in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Inspired by the tradition of artists such as George Innes, Louis Pinkham Ryder and others, contemporary representational painters are once again finding inspiration from the dawn and dusk twilight landscape.

Springtime in the Highlands by Monte Dolack

Springtime in the Highlands. Monte Dolack. Acrylic on Panel 9×12. Lock Etive, Scotland.

Magic light is not exclusive to the sun. The moon offers magical light that is a combination of reflected sunlight with a blend of starlight and earthlight. The luminosity created by the full moon low on the horizon mingling with the sunset or sunrise light creates mystery and ambiguity. This clandestine time can also stimulate the senses as it did with Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Painted on location, legend has it that this masterpiece was rendered with candles mounted to the artist’s broad brimmed hat for illumination.

Saguaro Sunrise by Monte Dolack

Saguaro Sunrise. Monte Dolack. Acrylic on Panel 9×12 on panel. Tuscon, Arizona

Chiaroscuro is an Italian term that refers to the strong contrast between light and dark.  Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer are well known seventeenth century European painters whose use of low key and single point lighting gave their work it’s compelling emotional and melodramatic quality. Arguably, the greatest master of light and shadow was Caravaggio, who’s painting The Crucifixion of Saint Peter, encompasses the drama and mastery of composition and light that best defines chiaroscuro in realist painting. This effect of conjuring light out of the darkness continues to be an effective lighting technique in contemporary painting, photography and the cinema.

Flathead Moon by Monte Dolack

Flathead Moon. Monte Dolack. Acrylic on canvas 26×40. Flathead Lake, Montana.

Daylight hours can offer compelling light as well. Storms create dramatic tonality and passing clouds can illuminate the fields and hillsides with dappled light. When painting outside on location, it is difficult but possible to work in the early morning or late evening, but mid morning or mid to late afternoon or more likely to provide a better arc of light.

Placid Lake Sunset (Dog is my Co-pilot) by Monte Dolack

Placid Lake Sunset (Dog is my co–pilot). Monte Dolack. Acrylic on canvas 24×24. Placid Lake Montana.

Those of us that drive the vast landscapes on Montana’s highways, are given magnificent visual opportunities as compensation for our long distance journeys. I try to always have my camera along and anyone with me knows I will most likely be pulling off the road at interesting vistas to photograph the views. This is not always pleasurable for my passengers unless they too appreciate the additional advantage of stopping, enjoying and possibly photographing an inspiring view. This is true not only in Montana but on travels in other parts of the world as well.

Inspired by dramatic mid day light found on Lock Etive in the highlands of Scotland Mary Beth and I set up and arranged our easels, squeezed out colors and begin to paint. The loch was brilliantly sun-struck alongside dark billowing clouds at the far end of the lake. It was vivid and the light on the trees and grasses dancing in the breeze, enhanced the brilliant spring colors. It was a compelling landscape and we were thrilled just to be there, as well as working on our paintings with the ever changing and stirring landscape.

Midnight all a glimmer by Monte Dolack

Midnight all a Glimmer. Monte Dolack. Acrylic on panel.

The drama of the swirling highland clouds, now moving closer toward us, amplified our apprehension, as did the amazing play of light on the Loch and adjacent mountains. Our surroundings grew darker and the wind increased in intensity as the storm moved toward us. With great reluctance, as the rainsquall reached us, we hastily took down our easels, gear and paints and stowed them in the rental car, where we also sought shelter.  A wee dram of scotch seemed most appropriate.


To see more of Monte Dolack’s artwork, visit his Gallery or check out his newly renovated website.


A native of Great Falls, Monte Dolack grew up surrounded by the same sweeping vistas and big sky that inspired Charlie Russell. His love of Montana and passion for the West’s diverse landscapes and wildlife are evident in the images he creates and the commissions he undertakes.

His best known early works – wild animals wreaking havoc in human homes – comprise his “Invaders Series,” exploring the myths of the West and how we view our relationship with our environment. The irresistible appeal of these images helped build Monte’s national reputation and continues to attract collectors.

A love of the natural world, combined with his exuberant curiosity and travel experiences, has shaped the content of Monte’s imagery.  Blending mythology, technology, and elements from nature and the landscape, his work is infused with a sense of humor and irony.