One of the last things people notice about a painting is its brushwork simply because most work is seen from a distance at first and then viewed in more detail as the viewer moves closer. To me, beautiful brushwork has variety, unity, purpose and vigour. Up close it should be an interesting abstract collection of marks which resolves into a coherent scene as we retreat from the canvas.
Great brushwork comes from the confidence of knowing how brush and paint and canvas work together in the subtlest of ways and that sort of tactile knowledge only comes from years of painting.
Here are a few tell-tales of beginner's brushwork:
Hesitant - many small brushstrokes inaccurately placed. Overworked - brushing over areas again and again leading to muddy colour. Destructive - brushstrokes not used well to denote the forms of objects. Monotonous - lack of variety in mark making.
The first step towards overcoming these pitfalls is to just begin considering your brushwork in earnest. A good question to ask yourself to open your creative channels is "what would happen if..." and see where that takes you. PLAY with your paint! See what is possible - hold your brush a different way, use the side, the tip, drag, dab, push, pull, more paint, less paint, different pressure, change brushes, change speed, use a palette knife, use a toothbrush, use a chicken, scratch back, rub off, rub on, impasto, dribbles, scribbles, splatters, smooth, rough, timid, tough. Enjoy!
Using the photos below make a painting or image in any medium and any size or shape with your main focus being on creating dynamic interesting brushwork. Don't let everything else go though - let's just say this is the most important ball you have to juggle. 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.
Play video full screen. Pause and rewind to analyse wave action
Take a screenshot if you wish to print a photo.
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.
Dorothy I'm drawn to this painting for its interesting brushwork. You've altered the design from my original by making the background equal in value to the ocean which leaves the painting a little unbalanced right to left. You have also lowered the horizon which I think works well to give the rock a larger scale although it throws the size of the foreground into question. I've certainly not solved that with my painting either and I suppose it has much to do with the angle of the swells and the size of the figure on the rock. I would suggest that if you keep the horizon lowered as you have it and the base of the furthest rock lifted so, then the furthest rock might require more evidence of atmospheric perspective (lightening and graying in this case) to help with the illusion of depth. I'm always surprised at how little a change in perspective drawing it takes to spoil the illusion of reality in a painting.
I like your overall colour scheme and I think the colour works well together but there are a few eye-pokers there which could do with some work. The main one is the darker green in the face of the waves. It's just a bit too dark for the surrounding colours. From it's placement I assume you were trying for the light green where the wave is quite thin and translucent so for this colour to work it really needs to be a little lighter than its neighbours. I do like the idea of using a warmer gray in the background as you have done to tie in with the colours in the beach sand but it does look as though it needs to be darker in order to read better - either that or adding more of your warm gray into the distant ocean as they are usually a closely related pair.
Looks like you had a lot of fun with the palette knife on this one and it's nice to see you've balanced much of this large gestural work with some finer lines and details - something that's hard to stop and do when you're going at it with the knife. Exploring brushwork was the main goal of this workshop and you've done that in spades, so, well done.
I didn't expect everyone to nail the realism and brushwork and the same time in this workshop - that takes a lot of practice, but in a few areas like the big foam and the rocks you've done a good job of dealing with both at the same time. Some more attention to the overall structure of colour in the ocean and waves will give you more insight there, especially if you squint while you look. At the moment the ocean's not working well as a cohesive whole because you have patches of darker value breaking the structure. I would also like to see the shape of the big splash broken a little and a few softer edges added. I hope that helps some.
Bobbi this is a commendable painting with a lot going for it. I like how you've divided the space in your design, all except for the beach which is a large plain space that needs breaking up. You've tentatively placed a soft shadow across the foreground but this could be a lot more interesting. Adding the serpentine strip of wet reflective sand between sea and sand could also help with adding interest to this space. I found the way the distant beach lined up with the rocks, although accurate, was troublesome as it stopped the space reading easily so I opted to raise it slightly higher than the rocks in every painting I did there. Beware of objects lining up with things behind them - in nature we have the option to move our viewpoint to see what's going on, but in a painting it remains confusing forever more. You could also have varied the shape of the large mass of your distant trees to add more interest there.
'Pounders III' by Richard Robinson
Your colours in the water are all very good, especially the foamy sandy water on the beach which is always a tricky spot and also been pretty subtle with your greens atop the rock which is nice to see - although you could have blued and lightened the distant trees somewhat to help separate the midground and background space. The brown in the mist is an interesting choice which I think would look better in a sunset scene but doesn't quite fit in this one and begins to look more like smog to me.
It looks like you've had a little bit of fun with the brushwork, but I bet you could have more fun with it. It's always a reach to paint outside our safe zone but I always find it exciting and even if I don't like my finished painting there's always something to take away from it that filters through into future work. I encourage you to push yourself further in this area.
You've certainly got a good eye for drawing which is the backbone of realism and as I've already mentioned adding more variation in the foreground, variation is also a key to convincing realism but nature has an unlimited budget for variation and we tend to want to simplify things so when you feel that happening it's time to look again and ask yourself what other elements in the scene could be used to add richness to a particular section of the painting. Overall it's a good painting Bobbi and I can see you doing even better on your next one. Good luck!
'Pounder, North Shore, Oahu' 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Ish
Ish, right of the bat I'm enjoying looking at this - it's clear you've been painting for some time and you have a good handle on it. I love the foliage you've added to the top and interesting shadows in the sand and I don't know if you intended this or not but the slanted horizon is adding to the powerful feeling of movement this piece conveys, along with the nicely curved beach, which if a little unrealistic is still very lyrical.
A beautifully light and airy colour scheme (Monet would approve) but you've also managed to throw in a few intense darks which makes it that little bit punchier. You are interweaving colour throughout the painting which is lovely to see - a visual feast and I can even see some greens in the beach which to most is counter intuitive but works very well here (I've been noticing subtle greens in the white sands here lately too). Nicely done. Those darker dashes of ochre in the waves seem a touch too dark, but that's being pretty picky.
Again a nice collection of brushwork with especially nice use of drybrush in the foam. Some beautifully crisp edges on the rocks there and lovely fluid work in the overhanging foliage. The tree atop the rock could perhaps do with a little more textural variation as it's looking a bit cotton-ballish to me.
Your drawing, colour, values are all good. Beautiful work - good job.
'Another Day in Paradise' 15x30" Acrylic on Canvas by Jess Paskel
Wow this is very dramatic Jess - nice job. The design is very simplified which just puts more emphasis on the beautiful splash which is great. If you cut off 4 or 5 inches on the left I don't know that you would be missing much, so perhaps that's something to consider. Other than that I think the design is pretty solid - even in the background which could have been a weak spot of plain grayness you've introduced plenty of textural interest there and varied your colours - nice.
You've really played a lot with your warms and cool which is a big part of the appeal of this painting, exemplified by the warm orange on the rocks surrounded by the cool greens of the ocean and mountains. There's also a lot of subtle colour work in the big splash and the shadowed foam in that area which to me is the highlight of this piece - very keenly observed although unfortunately the same can't be said for the straight stripes of foam on the far left which looks clumsy by comparison. The overall colour effect is very effective.
At first I thought the brushwork was a bit finicky but then I saw the actual size of the painting and realised that like Monet's paintings this one would be much more impressive in the flesh. You're showing a good variety of large and small marks and a range of texture but I challenge you to try and include some even larger juicier brushstrokes in your next painting.
For the most part the realism in this one is really good but I keep wandering what's going on with the overall shape of the wave, that is, why does it slope away from the horizon instead of towards it as linear perspective would suggest? Other than that, all good.
The fun you've had with this one! It looks great Helena. You've kept the design very similar to mine so I can't suggest anything different there except for leveling out the horizon a bit, but then the whole painting seems tilted slightly to the right so that may just be the photography?
It's very striking colour with that strong green and intense blues and for the most part those relationships are working okay but in the background the should could have been grayed more (add a touch of orange) to help push that back rather than jumping forward as it is.
I love how much you've pushed your brushwork in this one and there are some parts of it that are just singing now because of that. I particularly love the bottom half of the painting where all the action is happening, the effect of the splattering and the subtle little shadows under the foamlets along the wet sand. Plenty of action and it's all about the waves so that's great work.
Step back from this one and it looks great but there are a few subtleties you missed which detract from the realism up close. The large sharp brushstrokes in the distant water are spoiling the sense of depth there and so is the similar treatment of the background. Overall though, very enjoyable to look at - sign it and frame it!
One of the last things people notice about a painting is its brushwork simply because most work is seen from a distance at first and then viewed in more detail as the viewer moves closer. To me, beautiful brushwork has variety, unity, purpose and vigour. Up close it should be an interesting abstract collection of marks which resolves into a coherent scene as we retreat from the canvas. Learn how in this workshop.
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