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Painting Workshop 44

"California Cliffs" 13 x 13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"California Cliffs" 13 x 13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

California Cliffs

Continuing with the previous workshop's theme of coastal cliffs at sunset, this time we learn to invent our own beautiful sunset lighting effect from a midday reference. Tricky, but can you do it!? Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this inspiring sunset beach scene. Painting a large glowing light effect, translucent water, atmospherics and simplifying complex structures 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    

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

"WS44" Oil on Canvas by Silke Sauritz

Hi Silke, you've done a good job with this painting. Nice subtle use of greys in the rocks and you've made a strong glowing effect which is the main goal of this workshop. The lines of the beach and water look a bit odd on the left as they turn upwards together although I do like the idea of bringing the eye back around into the scene by angling up rather than down. Some of the horizontal cracks in the foreground cliff are lining up cracks in the other cliff - good to avoid that sort of thing because it confuses things a little. The spotlight on the beach and water looks great. Good work!


Student Painting

"Central Coast Evening Glow" 12x12" Oil on Canvas by Stuart J. Gourlay

Nice one Stu. Good drawing and value control. Seems to have gotten muddy between the warms and lights in the cliff and the ocean. Keeping a separate brush for warms and cools will help. The peachy glow in the cliff is not yet consistent with the light in the scene behind it, which should be much more orange and light to produce that sme colour in the cliff. Also the transition from pink outwards in the cliff could be smoother and more radial to indicate glowing light. Other than that it's all good.


Student Painting

"Sunlite Beach" 11x14" Oil on Canvas by Sharon Bray

Good work Sharon. You've achieved an interesting variety of colour in both cliff faces while not getting muddy which seems to be one of the hardest parts of this project. I've made a few suggestions in Photoshop for you here:

Student Painting Student Painting
Original Altered in Photoshop

So I lightened sky and sea a little in the glowing area to make that effect more dramatic and at the same time I lightened the darks in the base of the cliff a little to tie in with that glowing effect and also to provide more separation between this and the foreground. I also softened the shadows on the beach because you have made them look like cast shadows from the hill rather than a soft cloud shadow which was my intention. The sun is the wrong position to cast shadows like that from the hill. I also broke up the hard staight line of the foreground hill against the beach to provide more shape interest. Small things to think about. Nice job.


Student Painting

"Two Cliffs" 16x20" Oil on Canvas Paper by Pauline Le Merle

Hi Pauline, you just about hit the jackpot here. You're painted the majority of this beautifully and I just feel that it loses it in the ocean and sky. The ocean has too many conflicting lines in it and the orange in the sky seems out of place. I've adjusted those two things in Photoshop - see what you think.

Student Painting Student Painting
Original Altered in Photoshop


Student Painting

"Lucky Bay" 9.5x12" Acrylic on Board by Darby Swisst

Great to see this different approach Darby which looks great. I love how you've utilised the texture of the paint to suit the different subjects and that works particularly well in the cliff face. I feel like you need to put some more work into the foreground cliff and bush. Seems to me that the texture in the foreground cliff should be even thicker, or show some more rock structure to differentiate it from the other cliff. The bush too looks a little formless. Other than that I love this painting. Great work.



Creating the Glowing Light Effect

Creating the Glowing Light Effect
Every colour in the painting gets warmer and lighter as it moves towards the sun.
I premix 'modifiers' on my palette to help me make those transitions.

Directing the eye

Why the soft shadow o the beach?
The purpose of the soft shadow on the beach is to help stop the eye from following a high contrast edge off the painting. Instead it redirects back into the centre of interest.


My final painting


"A Day on the Water" 15 x 15" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"A Day on the Water" 15 x 15" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.
Painted en plein air. (Outdoors on site).


'California Cliffs' 13 x 13' Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"California Cliffs" 13 x 13" Oil on Canvas by Richard Robinson.




Get the Demonstration Video

Demo Painting from workshop

Painting Workshop 44
California Cliffs

Continuing with the previous workshop's theme of coastal cliffs at sunset, this time we learn to invent our own beautiful sunset lighting effect from a midday reference. Tricky, but can you do it!? Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this inspiring sunset beach scene. Painting a large glowing light effect, translucent water, atmospherics and simplifying complex structures are all demonstrated in the video.

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