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Painting Workshop 37

Demo Painting

"Up the Creek" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Simplifying a scene

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to simplify a complex scene and bring out the best of a subject with exciting brushwork.

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  

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

student painting

"Looking Down Creek" 12x16" Oil on Canvas by Toska M. Courbron

Hi Toska, good to see you've made this scene more your own by changing things around. The composition is well balanced and your brushwork is bold and purposeful. You've created a lot of depth with your receding blues in the background which is great although I'd expect to see a little more of that blue reflected in the water. Some of your darks are too grey where they should lean more towards the local colour of the object. For example the dark inside the main bush should tend more towards green, as should its cast shadow on green grass. You've made the same mistake in the majority of your shadows and it is a good example of 'muddy' colour, which is in fact the correct value but not the correct hue. 'Muddy colour' is just colour that doesn't fit into it's surroundings. Take more care with your vertical reflection strokes in the water to make them perfectly vertical otherwise it gives the impression of sloping water. Also, with a blue sky I would expect the horizontal strokes over the water to be more blue. Just a few things to think about. Good work.


student painting

"Anglers Retreat" 8x10" Acrylic on Canvas by Sarah Bottjer

Hi Sarah, there's a real jolly feeling to this piece caused largely by the warm colours in the foreground and the sparking little details throughout. The figure is a nice addition too but unfortunately he's about a third the size he should be compared to the rest of the scene which gives him the appearance of a garden gnome.

The value structure of the painting is good, including the depth you've created in the background, though the V shape there is a little too regular an the sky holes are creating more of a lacework pattern than actual tree shapes. That blue sky should also be reflected in the water. By flattening out the base of the river banks you've lost some of the shape interest. A few things to look at but overall a good result.


student painting

"RR Workshop 37" 11x14" Acrylic on Canvas by Howard Bagley

Hi Howard, this is a great painting with just a few adjustments needed. Your colour is beautiful and the drawing is good, the brushwork is confident and interesting. Three small changes I'd make would be to add some soft edges and small details to the edge of the green tree, make the background shapes a little more tree-ish, and make the white flowers/weeds smaller in the background. That's it. Otherwise, great work!


student painting

"Dark Passage 2" 5x7" Oil on Canvas by Nancy Sands

Hi Nancy, I do like the design of this a lot but unfortunately it's all got a bit muddy and garbled. Your cool darks have mixed with your warm lights through too much dabbing and not keeping your brush clean enough and reloading with fresh colour. Can I suggest you take another look at the demo video and follow the process more strictly of darks, then mid values, then lights. Also the thickness of the paint is important. If you put too much medium in your darks to start with it makes it hard to paint over and if you put too much medium in your lights they'll tend to mix in with the darks. If you give yourself a bigger canvas you'll have more room to move too. You can do it!


student painting

"Workshop 37" 9x12" Oil on Canvas by Janet Buckton

Bold colour, Janet and lovely and warm in the foreground contrasting with the cool background. I get the feeling the background is a little too blue and could do with a touch of grey-green in it to create some connection with the foreground. My painting is a little guilty of that too. Also the darkest dark in the foreground is too blue making it stand out whereas it should recede beneath the mid values and lights. If the left side of the tree was a little darker it would add more roundness to it - at the moment the value is very similar all over and it's causing it to flatten out a little. You've done very well with your edges creating depth by contrasting sharp edges in the foreground with sift edges in the background. Overall you've made a very good copy of the demo painting and I hope it helps inform your other work in some way.



My final paintings

Demo Painting

"Up the Creek" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

Demo Painting

"Canada Creek - Greyscale Study" 11x13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.




Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 37
Up the Creek : Simplifying a Scene

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to simplify a complex scene and bring out the best of a subject with exciting brushwork.

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