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Painting Workshop 22

Demo Painting

"Golden Gate" 13x13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson


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This Month's Challenge


What is about about rocks that we love so much? Their timelessness in a fast paced world? Their simple surety? They rock? Whatever it is, I sure get a lot of requests to do rock demo's, so here we go - this one's perhaps a tad larger than what you might traditionally start out with, but the principles are the same from stones to mountains. Join me to learn how to paint convincingly solid rocks.

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 painting rocks. Rock on!

Click image to enlarge.    
Resource Photo - click to enlarge
Resource Photo - click 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 painting Form 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

student painting

"The Rock" 30x30cm Acrylic on Canvas by Maria Woolrich

Not too shabby Maria! Good drawing skills and a good sense of the direction of the light and form of the rocks. Looks like you've used burnt sienna or raw umber as a base for the colours in your rocks (I'm guessing). I used to do that too but found that the brown muddies too much of the other colours - it's hard to get away from it so I don't have it on my palette anymore. You're bridge could be a bit light on the far side - see how it's pushing forward of the land it's supposed to be resting on? Values.

You missed out on adding the slight reflection of the rocks in the water which helps the water look more realistic. Also the rocks cast shadows on the water should be more of a blue grey rather than a brown grey. If you introduce more colour variation into your sky and rocks and water they will be more interesting - yes, harder to control as a painter, but more interesting for the viewer. You'll get there. Doing great already!


student painting

"A Rock" 30x30cm Oil on Canvas by Ningning Li

Great painting Li, love your bold colour and strong contrasts. I think enlarging the bridge slightly as you have done was a good idea in terms of balance but it does irk me a little that the top of the bridge finishes right at the top of the canvas. Also you could have given a little more information about how the bridge uprights connext to the land - looks a tad unfinished there to my eye. Minor things. Overall it's terrific and I love the solid brushwork. Good job!


student painting

"Rock Picture" Oil on Canvas by Diane Bialecki

A really bold design Diane and bold suits the subject so it works on two levels. You've broken the space into interesting shapes. The bottom right quarter seems a little lost in terms of structure though - perhaps a larger darker value shape would be good in there? I do like how you've cropped the top of the rock off as though it's too big to take in with one glance.

Strong colour usage - you've contrasted grays with small touches of more vibrant colour and you have plenty of variation within the greys to keep me interested. Although the background colour gradation up the left side of the canvas is interesting I can't help but feel it would have been even more interesting to just add a subtle hint of something else in the background like the distant shore or the bridge carrying on. Looking a the shadow side of the rock there it looks to me like a few of those lighter strokes could have been ommitted or darkened to retain the simplicity and boldness of the large shadow shapes there. It's always tempting to over-lighten the reflected lights to add more oomph but there's a price to pay in the loss of realism, the weakening of form. Overall it's very powerful though and I'd like to see some more in this style.


student painting

"The Rock - Golden Gate Bridge" 11x11" Acrylic on Canvas Paper by Tammy Wolcott

Hi Tammy, not your best painting - but a tricky subject for sure, especially with acrylics because much of it is dealing with softer blends of colour. The brushwork in the sky is bold and interesting although it did get a little muddy around the bridge. Working back and forth with it tends to sort that out. ie. painting the sky then the bridge then the sky then the bridge. Similarly the water could do with some more work and some vertical strokes in there to give some evidence of the reflections on the rocks, which you've avoided. Those reflections help to anchor the rocks in the water - without them they float a bit.

You've kept your eye on the direction of the light which is good but your darks look a little too dark, giving the feeling of holes rather than shadowed areas. The horizon could be flatter too. One thing's for sure, not every painting is going to be a masterpiece, but every one is a stepping stone - that's what I keep telling myself anyway.


student painting

"Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco - California - USA" Oil on Canvas Paper by George

George this is a pretty striking painting, helped by a well balanced design with the foreground nicely leading us in and your zoomy clouds pushing our eyes back in from the top. Couple of things I'd like to see are the blue in the water grayed down a smidge because it hits my gaudy button, the horizon to not step down behind the rock, and for there to be some evidence of atmospheric recession in the bridge. At the moment the colour and value of the distant bridge is telling me it's been built on the back of the big rock but the good drawing of the bridge is saving it somewhat. You just need to grey and lighten the colour of the bridge as it receeds.

I like the interesting paintwork on the rocks which has a natural sort of randomness to it. Again there could be evidence of a reflection of the rock in the water which would add more interest and realism there. Good work George.


My final painting

Demo Painting

"Golden Gate" 13x13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson

Demo Painting

My thumbnail designs.


Demo Painting

"Golden Gates" 12x16" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson
(Painted en plein aire)


Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 22

What is about rocks that we love so much? Their timlessness in a fast paced world? Their simple surety? They rock? Whatever it is, I sure get a lot of requests to do rock demo's, so here we go - this one's perhaps a tad larger than what you might traditionally start out with, but the principles are the same from stones to mountains. Join me to learn how to paint convincingly solid rocks.

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