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Painting Workshop 32

Demo Painting

"Last to Fall" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson - En Plein Air.



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This Month's Challenge

Autumn Colour

There's nothing I find more inspiring to paint than warm autumn colours against cool mountain backdrops. This painting has been painted en plein air (outdoors) and in this video you get to see that process step by step and a self critique of the finished painting at the end.

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. Happy painting!

Click image to enlarge.  
Resource Photo Resource Photo

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 colour 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

John Crump

This month's critiques by guest master artist John Crump.

John Crump's Website:

Video Painting Lessons:

Demo Painting

"Morning on the River" 7.5" x 11.5" WS oil on canvas textured paper by Robin Sage

You showed great courage in tackling a difficult subject Robin. The figure, the rafts, the water and the beach are beautifully done with great colour and tone. One of the things I try to make sure I do when nearing the end of a painting is to look away and then flick the eye back to the painting. Somehow, it helps me to notice things that are troublesome – out of keeping with the rest of the picture. Your cliff on the right and the reflections at the bottom of the cliff trouble me. They are too busy – especially the reflections. The other thing – less of a bother – is the line of cliffs in the background. They are far too blue for the distance. The colour is imposing itself on the rest of the painting. A quieter shade of blueish grey would have worked better. A very good effort nevertheless.

- John Crump


Demo Painting

"Boat" 11"x10" Oil by Olivia O'Carra

You have done very well with a complex subject Olivia. The wharf, the dinghies, the boat sheds, (apart from a slight perspective problem with the front of the nearest shed), and the yacht obviously resting on the bottom, are all complicated shapes to manage. You have achieved the effect of glittering water in the foreground very well.

The only area I have a problem with is the highlight colour on the background  hills. If you look at the blue you have used for the shadows on those hills, they are obviously a long way away. However, the colour you have used for the highlights is not very far at all. This is a very common problem for many painters –  the colours they use on the shadows and highlights of distant objects argue with each other, whether they are mountains, foothills, or even relatively close objects. Just remember that yellows in the landscape disappear quite quickly with distance.

- John Crump


Demo Painting

"Bush Barn" Oil on canvas 30x30" by Suzanne Louise Andrew

Overall, your painting of the barn Suzanne his some very nice colour and the feeling of distance and tone works well. I particularly like the sky which has a lovely sense of rhythm in it.

However, there are a few things I would like to mention. The very dark area inside the barn is what we might call a black hole – it is too dark and has no suggestion of anything inside. Also, if you have a look at your roof structure, you will see that it is getting taller as it goes away from us – it should be getting smaller! Try taking some photos of similar buildings from an angle and you will be surprised how much the roof slopes downwards as it moves away from us.

One other thing, putting a fence line or a gate in the foreground of a painting puts a mental barrier in front of the viewer. It implies that you are not allowed in. You can use a fence to lead people in to your painting but it needs to run away from the viewer and preferably be very broken down and incomplete so that we can mentally walk through it.

 An afterthought – if you look at the green you have used at the base of the building, you will see that it is virtually the same as the green in the immediate foreground. It needs to be much quieter – more gentle. Because green has yellow in it and yellows disappear with distance, your green should begin to move towards a  greyish green. It will better convey a sense of distance. 

- John Crump


Demo Painting

"We'll Get Her There" 20 x 16 inches Oil on Canvas by Denis King

An unusual and challenging subject Denis. I suspect you enjoy painting boats and water as you have handled them very well in this painting. Beautiful colour – especially around the bow of the boat that works so well to draw the eye to the focal point. You have handled the water well too.

Perhaps my only hesitation is the land and sky behind the boats. If you had used a slightly darker blue/grey on the hills, made them a little taller, and softened the top edge slightly – almost blurred them into the sky, they would have added to the feeling of early morning haze and would have resolved a slight loss of definition around the back of the ship and the superstructure of the rear tug.

 Sweeping the front edge of the cirrus cloud up and out of the top right edge would have given an added dimension to the sky and would also have helped direct the viewer to the focal point.

But I don't want to sound too 'picky'– it is a very nice piece of work.

- John Crump



Demo Painting

"Autumn Colours" 8" x 10" Oil on Canvas by Fay Thomson

I would agree with Michael's comments Fay but would want to add a couple of extra thoughts. The subject of your painting (obviously the trees in autumn colour) have dictated a strong autumn gold. However, the mountains to each side of the trees and the shadowy path into the painting are almost the complementary of those trees. Therefore, there is no particular colour theme to the painting – in fact the colours are almost at odds with one another. If you look at your painting dispassionately, you will see that the trees feel divorced or ostracised from the rest of the painting.

Most of us would like to achieve a sparkle in our work and we can achieve that better I believe, if we let one colour be dominant and the bulk of the rest of the painting be in more neutral colours, perhaps even analogous colours with only small amounts of the complementary to bring that sparkle that we are after.

 In that way, the painting has a theme and 'holds together' better.

The other thought is just a small one – the trunks of your trees feel as if they are drawn on top of the trees rather than a part of the group amongst the foliage. After you have drawn as loosely as possible the trunks and branches, try taking a large clean dry brush and lightly whisking across them. They will immediately become soft- edged and feel as if they are within the tree, not drawn on later.

- John Crump


Thanks John for all your insightful comments - hugely appreciated!
- Richard Robinson



My final paintings

Demo Painting

"Last to Fall" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson

Demo Painting

"Autumn Gold" 14x8" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson



Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 32
Autumn Colour

There's nothing I find more inspiring to paint than warm autumn colours against cool mountain backdrops. This painting has been painted en plein air (outdoors) and in this video you get to see that process step by step and a self critique of the finished painting at the end.

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