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Painting Workshop 24

Demo Painting

"Garrapata" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson


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This Month's Challenge

Premixing Greys

Colour mixing takes up the majority of a painter's time, especially mixing greys, which seems to take ages! Most of the colours we see in landscapes are greyed to some extent so this is especially pertinent for landscape painters. In this workshop we look at how we can speed that whole process up by premixing a set of greys before we start painting. Shock! It really works!

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. 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 premixing greys and using them in a 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


Here's a video showing an example of premixing greys.

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 using Greys 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

"Californiascape" 60x60cm Acrylic on Canvas by Guðmundur Valur Magnusson

A very dramatic painting Guðmundur! You've really taken the idea of contrasting colour against grey and made a powerful statement with it. My brain is saying 'it should have slightly more colour in the top third' and that might lend it some more realism in terms of a recognisable weather/lighting effect, but then again, with that forboding ashen greyness you've given the painting such mystery that it's enticing to look at and puzzle over and it certainly leaves the blue as the star of the show.

Your drawing and perspective is great and the detail you've achieved in the water which the larger canvas has allowed is captivating. It's great to see you've used a range of interesting brushwork and techniques from wet in wet to impasto knife work to scumbling and glazing to build up the paint surface. Perhaps my only reservation I have would be to break the line of the base of the rock which is just skirting the bottom left corner as it seems to me to be sqeezed into the frame with not enough room to breath. I such cases I either run the rocks out of the bottom edge or push them further up the picture plane. Despite that you've done well to shadow that area enough so that it's not a big problem. Great work Guðmundur, and I bet it looks pretty striking on the wall with a spotlight on it.

student painting

"Workshop 24" 9x12" Oil on Canvas by Linda L. Kano

Linda it's great to see you achieving this level of painting. Looking back over your work I can see a steady improvement but as often happens with enough brush time this one has taken a leap ahead. Sometimes it all comes together for a few blissful hours and everything seems to fall into place nicely, and that seems to have happened here.

I'm impressed with the motion in this painting and the fluid brushwork and the subtlety of your colour work against the greys, but most of all, after comparing your previous work I'm delighted with the simple variety of your rock forms - you've made a tricky thing look easy, especially in the foreground where you've managed to juggle all those slightly different hues and at the same time built a convincingly simplified rock structure, seemingly with little effort. If I have to pick something I'd change it would only be the 1,2,3 spacing of your small rocks strung across the water, probably by removing one, and to clear up the slight muddiness obscuring the distant coast.


student painting

"Lighthouse Beacons" Oil on Board by Lori Ippolito

Hi Lori that's a great glowing spotlight effect you've achieved - very striking! You've taken the grey vs colour concept and used it to good advantage. You chose a very difficult photo to work from which has relatively flat lighting on a very complex collection of non descript rocks so I applaud you for taking the challenge where you've had to change and imagine so much of the scene to distill a decent painting from it. The biggest challenge here was describing the form of the landscape while playing that big spotlight over it and you've done a good job of that, although I can see it was a real labour in the foreground and all that thick muddy grey there could do with scraping and rethinking. I try to keep my darks fairly thin and loose and save the impasto for the lights because light sparkling off impasto darks spoils the illusion of shadow.

Your softening and greying of the distant hills has helped hugely with adding depth to the painting. The gulls are a nice touch but I wouldn't have them cloned and flying in formation - I'd change their size and angle and placement. The one big thing I'd like to see changed in the landscape is the repeating shapes of the main spotlit rocks and the green covered rocks directly beneath it. It's less obvious because the two shapes are different colours but once you see the duplication it it's hard to ignore it.


student painting

"Brittany" 50x40cm Oil on Canvas by Suzanne Louise Andrew

Suzanne it's great to see the extent to which you've changed the original scene to create this painting. You've made it more exciting that the photo which is always a good goal when painting from a photo. There's something so dramatic about a spotlit landscape against a dark grey background that just gets me every time and you've certainly achieved that here. You might also have tried casting the whole foreground into a soft shadow (which could still be done with glazing) to add to the lighting effect. The cliff face itself could do with a little more obvious structure - the lighter yellowish shape on top adds a dash of colour interest but the form of it is detracting from the shape of the hill rather than adding credence to it. Specifically, the large yellow shape is mostly the same colour and value which suggests flatness rather than a rounded hillside or even a broken rocky face. You've invented it yourself which is great but I feel like you've stretched beyond your understanding and need some photo resource to plan that hill a bit better.

I love the energy of your brushwork in the sea foam and the rich texture you've built up in the hillsides and the whole of the background has a beautiful mystery about it. Good work Suzanne.



student painting

"Garrapata Study 2" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Xiao Li

Hi Xiao, this is a good painting with a few things I'd change. First of all the good points though... nice fluid brushwork, subtle light and shadow on the water, interesting composition. Here's what I'd change - I read your comments about your battle to lighten the landscape and push it back in space and you're right you haven't quite achieved it, but being aware of the problem is the first step to fixing it.

Check out the painting of point lobos I did below. There's a bigger value difference between the foreground and the mid ground than in your painting and I've especially lightened the background behind the tree which is my centre of interest. In your painting, to establish the more distinct value difference I would have first of all laid down the darkest dark in the foreground and then the darkest dark in the midground. That makes it easy to make value choices from there on in. Behind your tree I would have lightened the background even more, thinking of light through seaspray. Otherwise it's all good and the only other thing I would change is the shape of the branches in the top left because they're too similar.

Point Lobos
"Point Lobos" by Richard Robinson



My final painting

Demo Painting

"Garrapata" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson


Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 24
'Garrapata' : Premixing Greys

Colour mixing takes up the majority of a painter's time, especially mixing greys, which seems to take ages! Most of the colours we see in landscapes are greyed to some extent so this is especially pertinent for landscape painters. In this workshop we look at how we can speed that whole process up by premixing a set of greys before we start painting. Shock! It really works!

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