Black and white Nocturnes

Chopin’s music in ink

Frédéric Chopin wrote 21 nocturnes for piano, each a few minutes long, simply constructed and poetic (as distinct from something more narrative like a symphony).

Personally I have always felt that listening to the Nocturnes is like looking around an exhibition, at paintings that initially present a clear subject and mood, only to lead the eye into more restless, more disturbing details, more muscular brushwork and challenging colours …before returning gaze to the big picture. The mood may be languid, even limpid, but things are going on in the Nocturnes – though what, exactly, is not spelt out.

Though he made it his own, Chopin did not invent the term Nocturne– in fact, its origin is in the night Offices of the medieval Church. But it could just as easily have been an artist’s invention. The night-time atmosphere, drained of colour; the deep shadows and cold white reflections, the silhouetted contours. The Anglo-American James Whistler and the undervalued Czech Tavik Franticek Simon both painted ravishing Nocturnes.

The drawings in this book are my own 21 Nocturnes, in homage to the Master. Each picture employs the same three elements – a moon, a nude and a piano – and I found many ways to relate them to each other.

A Moon for the romantic mood and symbolism, as well as its varying shapes, all white against a black sky.

A nude for its sensuous lines. And a piano – well, I soon found the piano had all sorts of uses in a picture. First there is the connection with the music. Then, the curves of a piano which echo the curves of the moon and sometimes of the nude. Of course, where there is a piano there is a pianist, and therefore a second character in the picture and a hint of narrative – though a narrative that is no more explicit than the dramas so often implied in Chopin’s music.

None of my drawings were specifically coupled with a particular Chopin Nocturne, but I wanted them all to have the feel of music being played and listened to – his music.


A picture inspired by music is never quite enough. You want a way of crossing the barrier between pictures and music, to present and explore the elements of a picture in the way that a musician does it.

Which is how I came to animate a selection of my Nocturne drawings. Perversely, rather than learn an animation programme I used Power Point after initially deconstructing the pictures in Photoshop. This meant that when I took the ultimate step of teaming up with a pianist, Mirsa Adami, I was able to control the transitions in the animation in response to her playing: it became a two-way interaction – as near to a musical performance as a mere illustrator could ever hope to realise.

Extracts from Black and White Nocturnes 2011