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Painting Workshop 40

Demo Painting

"Mediterranean Harbour" 11x13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

Mediterranean Harbour

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this impressionistic harbour scene. Raising the overall colour vibrancy, glowing light, transparent water and impressionistic brushwork are all demonstrated in the video.

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
Photo courtesy Kelly Wegener        
Resource Photo   Resource Photo  
Photo courtesy Kelly Wegener        


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

"Beautiful Vernazza" 32.5x31cm. Oil on Paper by Silvana M Albano

A good painting Silvana. The first thing I notice is the colour of the water which is really nice and vibrant. The second thing that struck me is the reason why I focused on the water - it's because you've shrunk the boats which leaves more water to see. That's fine but it has split the scene in terms of focal point where the town now holds as much weight as the boats. Previously the town was a close second to the boats. I don't know if you did that consciously or by accident, but I just wanted to make you aware of the subtle difference there.

The drawing is pretty good on the whole - a few wonky boats could do with a bit of TLC though, especially the small white boats which you've dropped down from the horizon making them too small for their placement now. Your darkeset darks seem to be in the little trees above the seawall. By placing darker darks in the forground boats you'll give the painting more depth. Your brushwork is good - lots of broad painterly work contrasted by some nice crisp details. Nicely done!


student painting

"Courbron - Amalfi Italy" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Toska M. Courbron

Nice work Toska! It's a strong composition - large shapes with your darks joined together and a figure in an ideal 3rd/3rd spot to add narrative and scale. The painterly brushwork is the second thing I was attracted to. The drawing is strong. The overall colour scheme is quite harmonious if a little subdued. I wondered what it would look like to heighten the contrast, saturate the colour a little, warm up the lights and have a darker background behind the light village so I did that in Photoshop. See what you think. You might agree the altered image looks warmer and more inviting which suits this idyllic subject. Something to think about for the next one.

student painting
Painting altered in Photoshop.


student painting

"The tolling of the distant bell" 60x80cm Acrylic on Board by Jon Main

Nice composition Jon, which is giving this painting a lot of shape interest and a lot of depth due to the recession of the boats. Good drawing skills in those boats too. There's something quite Van Gogh-y about the front two. Good on you for painting such a large piece for this workshop - I bet it's much more impressive seen at full size. My first question to you would be 'why did you make all the boats the same colour?' To me the variety of colour in the boats echoed the variety in the buildings, which you've also simplified. You've removed variety from your painting in that way, which is as they say the spice of life, and also the spice in a painting. However, the broken colour you've introduced into the big shapes is working well to add variety in that more subtle manner.

You commented that you'll probably tone down the green in the water which I think is a good idea, and you could also make the mountains a little more blue to help negate the weight of all the blue in the boats, while adding more depth. It's a nice touch and good thinking to add the figure pulling the net but can I suggest you get someone to pose for this and you take a photo to work from? It'll look so much more convicing if you do that. Your clouds have a nice spotlight effect on them working well, as do the buildings. A few things to think about there but some really good work too.


student painting

"Mediterranean Colours" 12x14" Oil on Canvasboard by Glenys Jones

Beautiful work Glenys! This has a real impressionistic feel to it. Subtle colour usage, lyrical brushwork not overworked but with enough fine detail to give it substance, solid composition. Nice! A few things I could pick out for you to look at are firstly, the drawing of the black boat which is wonky, (practice it on paper a few times), the blue in the water should be a little greener, especially in the shadows, to tie in with the greener water colour in the middle. Make sure the waterlines of your distant boats are flat and level. The green in the hill is too strong and dark compared to the blue-grey dark there and the distance it is from us. Other than that it's all good. Great work!


student painting

"Mediterranean Harbour" Oil on Canvas by Janet Buckton

Great colour work Janet - you've really nailed it there and your drawing is pretty good too, although your central boat could be a bit bigger. Making the canvas longer has left you with a gap in the middle where there's not much going on in the water - sort of a waste of space. On the other hand you could say it makes it more restful and less busy. Depends on what you like. For me, I try to make every part of my canvas interesting in some way.

Your brushwork is pretty timid in this painting. Not many people come to my workshops and say to me 'I really want to tighten up!' so I'll assume you want to get more gestural and I challenge you to paint right over this painting using LOADS MORE PAINT (and THICK!) and doing in one stroke what you previously did in five, and then LEAVE IT ALONE! Think about the stroke, what it's for, how you'll do it, how to load your brush for it, and SWOOSH! Done. You need good brushes too with long bristles because it's very hard to get beautiful brushwork out of an ugly brush. Ok so consider yourself challenged. I do that because this is a really nice painting, on the verge of becoming a really great painting. Enjoy!



My final painting

Demo Painting

"Mediterranean Harbour" 11x13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 40
Mediterranean Harbour

Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this impressionistic harbour scene. Raising the overall colour vibrancy, glowing light, transparent water and impressionistic brushwork are all demonstrated in the video.

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