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Painting Workshop 14

Demo Painting

"Laniakea" 11x11" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson

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This Month's Challenge

Laniakea is a stunning beach rich with colour and contrast. In this workshop I'll show you how I personally deal with each of its elements to create a unified whole with special emphasis on creating richly coloured shadows. I also reveal my latest technique to create more dynamic brushwork in your painting.

Workshop Challenge

Challenge 1

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.    
Resource Photo - click to enlarge
Resource Photo - click to enlarge

The Process

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.

Visual Concept

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.

Here is a list of visual concepts written by Robert Bissett:

Interesting Shapes
Great Color
Unusual Texture
Sharp Contrast
Quiet Simplicity
Fascinating Complexity
Morning or Evening Light
Weather Effects
Back Lighting
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
Etc., Etc....

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

visual concept

Notan Design

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.

Resource Photo   photo
Original Photo by Lorna Allan   Notan Designs
Can't see this video?
Watch it on Youtube here:


Limited Value Study

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 notan design.
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.

photo   shadow and light families
Notan Designs   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.

Colour Study

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.

Resource Photo   Completed Painting - click to enlarge
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:

Can't see this video? Watch it on Youtube here:

Get The Ultimate Painter's Tool here:

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  

Painting Critiques


click to view painting larger

"Turtle Beach" 8x10" Oil on Canvas by Jennifer Beaudet.


Hi Jennifer, the design looks all good to me. You did great reducing the size of the palms which was a problem with my painting. The curve of the beach is really well done as is the treatment of the foreground shadow. You mentioned you weren't quite happy with the sky and perhaps that could use a little fiddling - extending one of the clouds out the top of the picture might help as running an object that close to the edge always gives the appearance that you were trying to squeeze it in (like your foremost rock). Also since the light is coming from top left the light area on the far right end of your cloud is defying the light source - it might read better as a shadow plane there.


It was a nice decision to gray down the background a little as they has helped the colour in the foreground pop a little more. The addition of the red flowers was also a nice idea that you executed well although you could have grayed down the distant flowers a little because they're poking out a bit there. Some of the shadows on the beach seem to have turned a bit muddy which in my experience comes from fudging your cools and warms together on the canvas instead of laying down your cools over the top stroke by stroke, keeping the brush clean.


You brushwork is good and varied, following the forms of objects well. Nice to see some impasto stuff going on there - quite impressionistic. Your palm trees are working from a distance but up close the brushwork looks a bit uncertain and that's led to a little muddiness in the sky there. Great shapes though. Good variety of soft and sharp edges too.


The overall realism is great and that owes much to your careful drawing. You mentioned that it has sold already - barely even dry! That's fantastic and a good testament to a painting well done. Congratulations.


click to view painting larger

"My Dream" 50x60cm Acrylic on Canvas by Helena Ignowski.


Hi Helena this is looking great. You've changed the angle of the beach a little and included more water in the composition which is all good. Personally I would like to see a little wave there to add a bit more interest to all that blue. Good to see you running rocks out of the frame to help lead the viewer in and their placement and recession is done well too - nice and random.


Your colour is great - very tropical. It's good to see you building a solid cloud by working through the spectrum from cool shadows to warm lights. You managed to push the distant trees back by cooling and lighting them too - good job. Overall it's good to see you varying the colour in every area - beautiful!


I'm really enjoying your fluid brush strokes here and the textural contrast you've made with the impasto foam breaking on the shore - exciting stuff! You might like to look at softening off the brush strokes in your distant water as it seems too similar to the foreground water and that can take away from the illusion of recession. Changing the hue of the ocean in the distance will help it recede as well.


A few of your rocks could do with some more attention - particularly the way they sit in the sand, which is largely a product of their base line. The rocks further away should have a flatter base line. Other than that the realism of this piece is good and I especially like the light pushing through the palm fronds - nicely done. Great job Helena!


click to view painting larger

"The Entrance" Oil on Canvas by Caroline Lee King.


I like the vertical design Caroline - nice to see the whole palm tree and that sense of freedom given to a scene by adding more sky and I love the shapes of your clouds too. I like the way you've made the stairway a focal point but the final drawing of that does let it down a bit as it is not clear what's happening at the end of it. I was hugely impressed to see that you made 5 separate paintings of this scene - way to go!


The colour in this is really pretty good. You could add a little more depth of colour to the water, try to avoid mixing your lights with your darks in the sand (it goes muddy) and darken the shadows in your clouds slightly to give them more form. Your hills could have some more blue in them too - they're quite a flat gray at the moment. Nice to see you playing with throwing some orange around to spice things up.


I'm liking your vigorous brushwork Caroline. Beware of crossing the line between bravura and sloppy though. Some of the shapes in your palm fronds could have been handled with more care and the stairs are quite clunky. My goal is always to try to make things read well from a distant but to look beautiful up close too. You're getting there.


There are a few things need touching up to raise the realism on this. The shadows across the sand could be more definite and continuous, the drawing of the stairs could be more refined and there are the other few things I've already mentioned. The overall drawing is good though and that's usually what makes for convincing realism. Hope that helps.


click to view painting larger

"Turtle Beach" Oil on Canvas by Jim Baldourmas.


Jim you've got a real cheery painting here - what it lacks in realism it makes up for with charm. You may not have captured the scene itself but the spirit of it is certainly there. The rocks seem to be the main feature because they are so dark against the sand so it's a shame the drawing of them wasn't a bit more informed. Their bases need to be flatter and more so as they move down the beach and they all need to be casting shadows onto the sand. Making them lighter gray will help them settle down too. Looks like at the top end of the far sand dune you're not quite sure what's going on in regards to how it meets with the flora there. If you're not sure the viewer won't be sure.


Nice to see you varying the hues in your beach shadows and your clouds which look great. In the foliage the base dark that you laid down was a mid value which is too light and is making the plants float on top of it spoiling the illusion of depth. Making that darker will solve the problem there.


You've got a great variation in brushwork there from soft clouds to chunky rocks and turbulent whitewash so it looks like you've had some fun with the palette knife but you've also discovered its limitations in that it's not very good at curved lines as in the palm fronds which look pretty clunky because of that.


This one's got a fair way to go on realism and much of that is down to drawing and values so I would recommend the best way for you to improve those things quickly is to do a few dozen paintings in grayscale and get some drawing training under your belt so you can really understand what it is you are seeing. If that's going to stop you having fun, don't worry and just paint!


click to view painting larger

"Turtle Beach" 12 x 18" Acrylic on Canvas by Ngaire Lincoln.


Hi Ngaire you've simplified the design somewhat and lost the drama of the dark shadows across the sand, which is actually in keeping with the overcast looking sky but does lose some of that warm tropical feeling. There is a problem with the comparison of scale between the rocks and the trees and the people. I think it's that the people and trees are too small. Having those dark rocks tucked away in the bottom left corner is not the best design idea - better to remove them altogether.


Having decreased the contrast between the shadows and the lights on the beach has taken some of the sparkle out of the colours there but all the same it's good to see you playing with adding some variety into the colours that are there with some oranges, mauves and greens. The same could be said for the ocean although it does look a little patchy with stripes placed here and there without a thorough understanding of what's going on.


Nice to see you enjoying your brush and those are some great looking palm trees there! Love that lost edge you've given the mountain under the cloud and the splash of foam on the shore. I can recommend pushing your lights further by using much thicker paint there - lots of fun.


Might want to measure that horizon and level it up. Which direction is the light coming from? Have you applied shadows consistently throughout the painting? Should the water darken as it gets closer to you and you see more through the surface? Answering questions like these all add up to a convincing painting. The highlight of this painting for me is the convincing structure of the mountain and the way you've worked the cloud over it - nice! Keep up the good work Ngaire.


My final painting

Demo Painting

"Laniakea" 11x11" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson
Purchase the fine art print here >>

Notan Desings
My initial notan designs for this painting.


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Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 14
Laniakea is a stunning beach rich with colour and contrast. In this workshop I'll show you how I personally deal with each of its elements to create a unified whole with special emphasis on creating richly coloured shadows. I also reveal my latest technique to create more dynamic brushwork in your painting.
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