One of the best ways to learn more about using colour is to limit our palette to 3 primary colours. Most of the colours you could want to use in a painting can be made using three primaries. Red, Blue and Yellow are the traditional artist's primary colours although they are not actually true paint primaries in the strictest sense because blue and red can be made with Magenta, Cyan and Yellow, but it's up to you what you use - each colour set will give you a slightly different range of colours. Either way, using only 3 colours becomes something of a balancing act when you are trying to make a certain colour. If your mixture leans too far towards any one of the three primaries you'll need to add the other two primaries to push it back the other way.
It pays to have a good grasp of the colour wheel when you are mixing colour like this. Imagine that the colour wheel is printed on a plate that you are rolling a marble on. Wherever the marble is is where your colour mixture is. If for instance it rolls too far towards red you need to tip the plate towards green to bring it back because if you only tip the plate towards one of the other primaries like blue for instance, your mixture will then be too purple. Clear as mud? Well, have a go and see what I mean - it's a balancing act.
A good test for yourself is to see if you can mix a neutral gray (neither warm nor cool) using three primaries and white - not as easy as it sounds! Good luck.
Using the photos below make a painting or image in any medium and any size or shape. Feel free to use complete artistic license - move things around, add things, change colors - whatever it takes to make a beautiful work of art. Enjoy!
Click image to enlarge.
Here's the general process I follow when painting in the studio:
1. Find a scene that moves me.
2. Find the visual concept for that scene. What's the big idea?
3. Draw or imagine the notan design. What's the dark/light design?
4. Paint or imagine a limited value study. Where will I place the main values?
5. Paint or imagine the colour study. Where will I place the main colours?
6. Paint the final painting. Dark to light, big to small, thin to thick.
Every good painting begins with a strong visual concept. This is something that beginners
usually miss completely because they are so concerned with trying to capture the
likeness of their subject.
Morning or Evening Light
Horizontal Movement, vertical counter-movement
Light Shape suspended amid darks
Light Shape moving against Dark Shape
Light Shape separating dark shape from mid-value shape
Eruption of fragmented shapes and colors
Note that they are concepts, not things. For example it's not a 'beautiful tree' or 'big
clouds'. A good painter begins with a strong visual concept to base a painting on. The
visual concept is usually suggested by the subject itself, especially in plein air painting,
but you can just as easily apply your own visual concept to the subject or even begin with
a visual concept in mind and find a subject to suit your idea. More often than not the
visual concept will be the very thing that you love most about the scene, the thing that
compels you to paint it, like the dramatic lighting or the strong colour or interesting
shapes. The important thing is to clearly understand this motivation at the very beginning
and write it down so you keep it in mind through the entire painting process.
Here are a few examples of some of my own paintings which began with a strong visual
Notan is a Japanese word
meaning the balance of light and dark. Using small notan designs is the best way I know
of to begin designing a painting. Most of the way we see our visual world is in terms of
light and dark patterns. Colour is really just the icing on the cake. Our brain recognizes
the silhouettes of objects first and needs very little other visual information to work with.
When I see a notan design I see the absolute core of a painting, the skeleton that
everything else is built on. Notan is a great way to sort out the placement of the major
masses before you dive into your painting. What I try to achieve with my small notan
designs is an interesting abstract design which expresses something about what I want to
say about my subject, or the 'visual concept'. To help with that I often write the visual
concept at the top of the page which sums up what I want to express in the painting. In
the case below I wrote 'Bold Shapes, Strong Contrast'. Then I went ahead and did a few
different notan designs.
We've looked at Visual Concept and Notan and the next step is to figure out the value
structure of your painting. We can see the value of a colour if we convert it to grayscale,
like in a black and white photo. Value gives us form. When everything is the same value,
like in a whiteout fog, we can't see anything. Your limited value study or studies will be based on your favorite notan design.
Goals for your limited value study:
1. Design a strong value structure from your scene based on your visual concept and your
2. Learn to see colour in terms of value.
3. Understand the principle of conserving your values. That is, practicing compressing the
entire visual range into 5 premixed values.
4. Explore the elements of your scene and how they relate to each other.
5. Explore the possibilities of variations in sharp and soft edges. How far can you push
these to help enhance your focal areas?
6. Keep a simplified value structure by keeping your pre-mixed values separate and don't
create large gradations. Soft edges yes, gradations no. Simpler is stronger. Don't mix
the values together on your palette either.
7. Paint from dark to light, big to small, thin to thick.
8. Use your palette knife if you wish.
9. Enjoy the freedom of using expressive brushwork without the worry of colour mixing.
Limited Value Study
For more information on notan and limited value studies please view the workshop video or refer to these earlier workshops: Workshop1 and Workshop2.
Painting a small colour study before getting to the final painting is a great step towards figuring out your colour scheme and ironing out any problems before you commit to a larger painting. Bigger painting, bigger mistakes. It's often easier and faster in the long run to correct those mistakes on a much smaller scale.
Original Photo by Lorna Allan
A completed painting showing notan design, limited value study and colour study as well as the gamut mask used for the colour design.
Here's a video explaining how to analyse colour and value with a colour checker:
Note: If you can't see the videos on this page (above) or on Youtube, I can't help with that sorry - there will be something wrong with your computer settings, but I'm no computer wiz. You would need to contact a computery person to fix that problem.
Gallery of the Month's Workshop Challenge Entries
'Glenorchy 3 Color 2' 11x15" Watercolor by Jane Scott
Jane this is a lovely piece of work halfway between abstraction and realism. It doesn't dictate its terms to the viewer but gently suggests they enter the scene you've created - it's got spoonfuls of mystery which is something I aspire to in my own work but have never managed it as well as you have here. The design is nicely done with organic groupings and spacings rather than equally measured shapes and gaps which so often stymie a painting at the offset.
A fairly quiet colour scheme with nothing out of place and just enough punch to make it exciting. More colour difference between foreground and background may have helped define the space better, for instance using more blue in the foreground.
Nice to see you letting the watercolour do it's own thing with plenty of wet in wet and the occasional crisp edge. You're really onto something here Jane. Personally I would make the drawing a little more exact where it is evident and make the big washes even looser, just to push the idea further.
I can't stop smiling about this one! It just makes me want to look and look and look, to visit this place and see the image resolve slowly into reality. Beautifully done.
Hi Rita your general design is good - very similar to mine except you've cropped the scene a bit more which makes it more intimate on the one hand but loses some sense of scale on the other.
You've done a good job with your colours. Looks like you've used a pthalo blue or cerulean or similar which results in much cooler colours overall than ultramarine blue, which is fine either way - it's interesting to try different blues out with a limited palette and indeed all sorts of colours, but if you change just one colour at a time you get a clearer understanding of that new colour's possibilities when mixed with your standard set.
It's good to see you're concentrating on producing a variety of soft and hard edges which keeps the eye moving around the canvas. I especially like how you've softened the right hand edge of the boat house to dissolve into the background which helps add interest and mystery to a fairly simple building.
Your drawing of the angles of the house is good and some parts of the trees have been deftly done but much of the rest of the drawing is too loose for it's own good, especially the dock which you've gone over and over instead of scraping off, repainting the background thinly and redoing the dock with a few simpler, well measured strokes. Easy to say though, harder to do while you're in the fray. The mountains are looking good as are the reflections except for the edge of the house reflection which is too far to the right. Overall a nice image which is unfortunately spoiled a bit by the dock - I'd redo that portion if it was mine. I hope that helps.
Great vertical design Susan - lovely to see you making a statement out of the rhythm of the mountains and how that contrasts which the more staccato tree forms. I can just about hear the song this would make if you slipped it into the orchestra's sheet music.
Gotta love orange and blue - my favorite complementary colour scheme. You've got some really intense colour in there which is great to see but you've tempered it with some grays so overall it's not garish, but that's a very subjective term anyway. I like your idea of introducing the orange into the mountains but parts of it are a little over-saturated for that area which makes them seem out of place. Looks like you struggled too with achieving the wispy look of the foliage - very difficult to achieve that feathering, so the tree on the left seems to be made of orange cotton balls which is a shame. Have you tried dry brush with a bigger brush? Maybe worth a go.
As usual for you it's a nice variety of brushwork but the drawing of some of the finer lines could have been better - looking a bit clumsy there in the trees and the water's wind lines and the dark reflections of the tree branches seem to be standing out to me too, probably because they're relatively too dark.
I 'm not sure what's happening with the river bank under the right hand tree. If it's long grasses or bushes in shadow I would add a few darker accents to add structure there or just throw a bit of light on it. The subtlety you employed at the top of the mountain is very graceful. There are a few things marring the illusion of realism like the tree and some of the drawing as mentioned but overall it's a very appealing piece to be proud of.
'Glenorchy Boat Shed' 12x12" Oil on Paper by Ross G.
Ross you've made this one your own and its bold design reminds me of the first workshop piece you did of 'First Snow' a year ago. I thought the other sketches you did were great too but I do always enjoy a painter making something from the lesson that is uniquely theirs and you've done that well. There are three elements of the design I find a bit irksome, the first being the uniformity of the lines of the mountains and the tree. Nature doesn't ever copy herself exactly - she's too original for that and you are too. You did the same with the boats. Always look for opportunities for variation. The door and window are too light and spoil the illusion of space, flattening the house as does the dark line that seems to be drawing itself around the house.
The colour in all your lights are great but the colourlessness of the grays in your darks is a bit concerning for me because I feel like it's missing out on the opportunity to add cool/warm variety with some blues and mauves and darker versions of local colours. It looks like you've used black for the grays which is fine, I mean, Zorn managed it beautifully but he very rarely used just pure black and white for grays. If it was me, more colour in those grays, up to you though.
Love your impasto brushwork Ross and all the textural variety you've explored with that - nice to see someone not worrying about the price of paint!
You seem to favour big shapes, strong lighting, a touch of mystery and heavy impasto painting. These are some of your strengths at the moment and it's great to see you sticking to your guns and applying the learning from the workshop into your own interpretation. Just a small note about the shadows on the house - you've got two different sorts of shadows. The tree is casting a hard and a soft shadow which is fine because trees can do that, but the roof is casting a soft shadow on the wall which indicates diffused lighting, in which case the tree should not be casting a hard shadow, but the easier way is to harden the shadow from the roof so that you have a consistent light source. A bold piece Ross, well done.
'Glenorchy Landscape' 15.7 x 11.8'' Oil on Canvas by Idan Solomon
Interesting to see the wider view of this scene painted Idan because a lot of people went for the closer shot so good on you for tackling all that detail. I think the overall design of this is good and well balanced but the muddy looking foreground seems quite plain and mostly empty which is detracting from the whole rather than adding to it. The colour banding you did there is a step forward and If it were mine I'd be tempted to add more interest and structure with a large cast shadow across the foreground that would drive the eye deeper into the painting.
It's a very subtle and soft colour scheme you've put together here Idan which is commendable because it is hard to make a painting where no one colour jumps out and says 'hey look at me!'. It takes a lot of control to do this while keeping your values in check as well as you have done it. Your next challenge is to add more variety into your large colour areas and a touch more vibrant colour in your centre of interest.
It's good to see the contrast you've made between the smooth sky, water and the textured landscape but I'd like to challenge you to make more contrast is brushwork within each area, along with variety in colour as I've mentioned. Notice how all you brushwork is very similar in the landscape. Using a larger brush to begin with can help you steer away from textural monotony.
Because of the hard work you've put into this painting it rates quite highly in terms of realism, so, well done there. I would encourage you to challenge yourself to try for more drama in your next painting - something I was challenged with early on and continue to aspire to. Happy painting!
One of the best ways to learn more about using colour is to limit our palette to 3 primary colours. Most of the colours you could want to use in a painting can be made using just Red, Blue, Yellow and White. Learn how with this charming lakeside scene.
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