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Painting Workshop 21

Demo Painting

"Fisherman's Wharf" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson


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This Month's Challenge

Atmospheric Perspective

Atmospheric perspective is the effect the atmosphere and light have on a scene as it recedes into the distance, generally getting lighter and grayer, with less contrast. In the majority of landscape paintings you will see the artist has exagerated the beautiful effect of atmospheric perspective. I certainly do in my paintings because it adds a wonderful sense of depth and an air of mystery. Discover the keys to achieving this beautiful effect in this workshop.

Workshop Challenge

Feel free to follow me step by step in painting the same scene or use the photos below or your own resources to design a piece that is more your own, or better yet, get outdoors and paint a similar scene from life! You can paint this any size or shape you like using any medium. Either way the main learning goal for this workshop is to focus on learning more about creating the illusion of atmospheric perspective in your painting. Happy painting!

Click image to enlarge.    
Resource Photo - click to enlarge
Resource Photo - click 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:

You can learn more about Atmospheric Perspective 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

Demo Painting

"The Sea Shack" 20x20" Oil on Canvas by Lori Ippolito

Hi Lori, looks like your water has got a little muddy but the overall colouring if this piece is really nice. I think all you need to do is stop yourself from smoothing everything out once you've put it down. The time honoured advice is 'put it on and LEAVE it!' It's so easy to go crazy with that beautiful soft blending brush that once you pick it up it's almost always fatal. What I would like to see in the water is some large horizontal and vertical strokes. If you threw those in there now they'd look awful though because everything else is smoothed out. There's always the next one.

Did you use black paint? Looks like it. It has a tendancy to muddy whatever if comes into contact with, but that again could be your blending. On this scene I used Ultramarine Blue and Cad Red and a little Yellow Ochre to get my darkest dark. The recession of your far building is good and the light above it is great but there are a few little dark accents there that are popping out and spoiling the recession a bit.

The shadow cast on your second story wall is too light and your umbrella wants to be a pyramid. Other than that it's all good, but do go ahead and burn that blending brush.


Demo Painting

"Fisherman's Wharf" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Dorian Aronson

Hi Dors, this is not too shabby at all! Good strong colour and good drawing (except the horizon is a bit too high). Let's see, anything need fixing? Well, the poles under the wharf are a bit too blue, like mine are too purple and light, and your back ones don't end convincingly in the water, much like mine too, so, my bad for doing it wrong the second time around and putting you wrong. Sorry about that. They need to be darker and grayer, as does the shadow cast on the water under there.

Your boats are good, very nearly convincing, but the closest one or two could do with a bit clearer form. I love your seagull - he looks like he's looking down for some lunch. The light reflections under the right side of the wharf are confusing - you've fudged that area and it's worth taking another look at that and you smudged your rocks, but you know that. Great stuff!


Demo Painting

"Fisherman's Wharf" 12x16" Oil on Canvas by Stuart Gourlay

Great attention to detail as usual Stuart. Great that you included that little sailing boat too which something I wanted to do on the day but he was moving too fast! I especially like all the intricate structure you've built in the poles beneath the wharf. While you're at it how about some folks enjoying a cuppa under the umbrellas? I can't see anything in this painting that needs mending particularly, so I'm really including it in the critiques to say 'Good Job!' and 'Hey everyone, look at this!'. Good work buddy.


Demo Painting

"Monterey Wharf, CA" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Sharon Casavant

Great colours Sharon and a wonderful loose treatment although it's at the expense of the drawing in a few places like the umbrella and the roofline above it which seems to be angling up to get away from the umbrella. The horizon could do with some straightening too. You've got all your values looking good, especially in the distant building which sits back there nicely in space and your jumble of brushstrokes there really does give the impression of a bunch of boats nestled together which is great.

All that different colour you've put in the sky looks very exciting but it is lacking a little structure, or realism. Some of the poles under the wharf are a bit too light - looks like they've picked up a bit of the light blue in that area. Over all it's great and looks like it's been a fun painting for you. Some of that loose drawing makes the painting look a bit whimsical or naive which may be what you're after. If whimsy is not what you are trying for you just need to slow down and get more serious with the drawing.


Demo Painting

"Fisherman's Wharf" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Sharon J Kosmin

Another strong painting in your inimitable style Sharon. Like Stuart's I've included in the critiques this time because I simply can't find anything wrong with it. Great job!


My final painting

Demo Painting

"Fisherman's Wharf" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson

"Harbour Light" 15.5x15.5" Oil in Canvas by Richard Robinson
(Painted en plein aire)
Purchase the fine art print here >>

Another painting using the same concept:

"Golden Gates" 12x16" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson


Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 21
'Atmospheric Perspective'

Atmospheric perspective is the effect the atmosphere and light have on a scene as it recedes into the distance, generally getting lighter and grayer, with less contrast. In the majority of landscape paintings you will see the artist has exagerated the beautiful effect of atmospheric perspective. I certainly do in my paintings because it adds a wonderful sense of depth and an air of mystery. Discover the keys to achieving this beautiful effect in this workshop.

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