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Painting Workshop 36

Demo Painting

"Last Light" 12x12" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Subtle Greys

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to make subtle greys, glowing light and interesting texture with acrylics. This scene from Kinloch in the far south if New Zealand is the perfect subject to explore these powerful techniques.

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

Demo Painting

"Autumn's Last Light" 11x14 Oil on Canvas by Laurena Beirnes

That's getting there Laurena. Nice work with your colours - you've created a strong light effect with subtle transitions between light and shade areas which is not an easy thing to do. Only problem is you've smoothed your brushwork a lot and over-simplified the design, making lines too regular and losing much of the interest you might have had. The sky for instance could have more colour variation, the grass could use a few vertical strokes to break up the surface, as could the foreground sand. In short, if you use more paint, larger and more aggressive brushwork without second guessing each stroke you'll have a much more exciting painting. It'd be great for you to do this painting again with that in mind. Make sure you get the drawing right to start with though. Good luck!


Demo Painting

"Workshop36" Oil on Canvas by Karlo Bonacic

Nice one Karlo - you've done well with the greys although it's got a little muddy in places where you could have used more colour in your greys like in the sky and at the base of the bushes on the left. It's a fine line between rich greys and mud. You're brushwork is really very good with loads of variety, if a little uncertain in some places. The drawing is very good too, all except the horizon line with is running into the baseline of the main trees - it should be a little higher to avoid that connection. Overall very well done.


Demo Painting

"A Gentle Light" 10x12" Acrylic on Canvas by Sarah Bottjer

Hi Sarah this is an interesting take on this scene. I'm not sure if the over simplification of the lines of the beach was intentional or not but it does make an interesting design. Unfortunately the two points of the beach formed by the longest lines seem a bit odd like there's a piece missing. I have a sense that you feel the need to see every item clearly in your painting but let me encourage you to explore using more mystery in your painting. If you using more lost edges and fewer lines in your work you'll see a marked improvement. For instance you don't need to draw every branch in the trees on the left - you could obscure them in a soft haze of foliage. You've also made lines of the shadow sides of your logs instead of the interesting broken shapes that they really are. That's your challenge for the next one!


Demo Painting

"Sunday on the River" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Lisa Bower

Great to see you making something different with this scene Lisa. You've managed to make a real glowing light in the foliage on the far bank by keeping homogenous colours over there. The reflections of those are working well in the eater too although I encourage you to use more vertical strokes in still water reflections then brush over them with horizontal sky reflections. That's a nice subtle shadow across the foreground you've made and a good spotlight effect in the centre of interest and a classic S-curve lead in. The figures are a good size for their position which is always a tricky thing to get right. It'd be better to lift that right rod a little so it's not in line with the far bank. A very peaceful scene.


Demo Painting

"The Sounds of Silence" by Cristina Mihailescu

Quite an impressionistic take on this scene Cristina with lots of lively brushwork. There's a problem with the drawing of the triangular grassy patch which has become over simplified now and could do with a much larger and more broken edge as it comes towards us. Dabbing bright green on that area doesn't give a convincing impression of light - better to use thin horizontal strips of light to lend it some perspective. Your trees look like they're crouching a bit to stay in the frame - better to not have them 'kissing' the top edge - just run them clearly out of the top as if there were another third of them outside the canvas. Make sure distant horizons are flat and horizontal - any small variation seen in this from a distance means something big is happening over there, so you've got to be careful - I even use a ruler sometimes. Check the drawing of your trees too - you can see more of the front ends of them in the photo with much more foreshortening than what you've drawn here. Overall it's a nice strong image that could do with a few tweaks.



My final paintings

Demo Painting

"Last Light" 12x12" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.


Demo Painting

"Last Light" 14x14" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.




Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 36
Last Light : Subtle Greys

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to make subtle greys, glowing light and interesting texture with acrylics. This scene from Kinloch in the far south if New Zealand is the perfect subject to explore these powerful techniques.

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