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Painting Workshop 38

Demo Painting

"Tuscan Fields" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Tuscan Fields

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this charming Tuscan scene with reference to Monet's painting of Poppy Fields from 1837.

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   Resource Photo
Resource Photo   Resource Photo   Resource Photo
Resource Photo   Resource Photo  

"Coquelicots, La promenade (Poppies)", by Claude Monet.
Oil on Canvas 19.7 × 25.6 in
1873, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

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 - click to enlarge

"Tuscany Homes" 11x14" Oil on Board by Laura Xu

Nice work Laura! You've managed to get a real impressionist look to this painting with your bold brushwork and broken colour, especially in the road and the sky. It's a strong design with large simple shapes though I'd like to see the edges of the road broken up more to add to the rustic charm of the place. The flower edging is a nice touch and I especially like the shape of your large tree on the left - really nice and varied with just enough detail to express the character of the tree. Your major hills are copying each other - always an easy trap to fall into. The drawing of the central barn is good but the other is a little off because the apex of the roof is too far to the right. Also you could have made the dark side of that building a touch darker to help with the form. Overall really a really nice result with just a few things to tweak.


student painting - click to enlarge

"Monet's Lady in Tuscany" 28x30" Oil on Paper by Silvana M Albano

Hi Silvana, good work here. You've keep the value pattern of the painting strong and given it some punchy colour although I don't think the greys in the foreground are helping at all because they're all the same value as the yellows there so it loses its sense of form. Below is the greyscale comparison of yours versus mine so you can see what I mean. Another thing that's a little confusing is the lighter blue shapes within your dark trees behind the green bushes. Not sure if those are intended to be holes or lighter accents on the trees. Your figure is good although the head could be a little smaller - something I'm often guilty of too. That little dark strip on the path leading into the bushes looks a little odd, not least of all because it joins in a straight line to the bush on the right. Needs looking at. Just a few things to think about. Good work!

greyscale comparison



student painting - click to enlarge

"Tuscan Fields" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Valerie Kenward-Harrison

Good work Valerie, I can see the effort and struggle that's gone into this one. The green bushes have all become very similar in size and their layout is echoed by the dark hill behind and then again by the distant hills which all conspires to remove variety from the design - something our brain does automatically because it loves to put things in nice tidy rows so we must fight it constantly when painting. One place I failed in this too in my painting was where I put the tree directly above the figure which gives the feeling that she might be balancing it on her head. You've dutifully followed my poor example so I can't blame you for that one but it's a good lesson for us both. I like your lost edge in the mountains but you've muddied and muddled the sky around the tree which negates the recession you gained with the lost edge. Your figure's good, if a little laboured and too dark in the shadows which cancels out the glowing effect you so carefully created in the grasses there. Also you could have softened some more of the edges of the green bushes to stop them looking like cutouts. Your flowers are good but have become a little muddied around the edges and could do with some grass painting back in to cover some of the greys there and define a few edges. Overall a good effort with just a few things to look at.


student painting - click to enlarge

"Tuscan Fields" 12x12" Acrylic on Canvas by Walda Juhl

Great that you played around with the design Walda - top marks for that and the design itself along with the drawing is really good. The main thing I'd like to see changed is to create more space between the foreground and background. The dark tree in the foreground is pretty much the same value as the trees behind it. This has really flattened out the painting but your good drawing of the receding road saves it from from being unreadable. To create more space you'd just need to lighten the darks in the hill a bit, seeing as you can't make the tree much darker instead. Your distant mountains know where they are though which is good.


student painting - click to enlarge

"Tuscan Farm Scene" Oil on Canvas by Jessica Futerman

A really pleasant scene Jessica with a lot going for it. The big fluid shapes are appealing, if a little oversimplified. The colour is strong, the greyed sky making the foreground look all that more colourful and inviting. Your poppies are well painted as is the shadow effect cast onto the distant hills by the low cloud. The subtle darker shapes in your field are receding as they should because they're not clearly getting thinner and closer together further away. That's the main reason the field is looking a bit flat, and also that the pathway isn't thinning out much as it approaches the buildings. Rethinking the path and the field would do wonders for this painting as that seems to be the weak link.


My final paintings

Demo Painting

"Tuscan Fields - Greyscale Study" 5x5" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.


Demo Painting

"Tuscan Fields" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

Demo Painting

Tuscan Fields - Closeup






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Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 38
Tuscan Fields

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this charming Tuscan scene with reference to Monet's painting of Poppy Fields from 1837.

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