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Painting Workshop 46

"The French Alps" 13 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"The French Alps" 13 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.



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This Month's Challenge

The French Alps

Ah, the French Alps in Summer! Magnifique! The hills are alive with the sound of cowbells and all we're missing is Heidi frolicking in the meadows. Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this beautiful alpine scene quickly and easily in acrylics. Painting a diffuse light effect, vast atmospheric depth, dynamic brushwork and inventing convincing rocks 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

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

Again this month we have the honour of having my painting buddy and mentor John Crump cast his very wise eye over our paintings. Here's what he thought:

To everyone...
Before I start talking about individual paintings, I need to say that all of the painters in this months choices have done well. The subject chosen is a really a study with landscape included, but everyone has managed to add their own individual interpretation and flair. Those pesky trees are a problem though!!

Student Painting

"French Alps" 20x24" Acrylic on Canvas by Mimi Tschida

A very good effort Mimi - the elements in the painting are nicely laid out but because you have used very similar tones throughout, I find it difficult to settle on your point of interest. I would have liked to have seen some good strong darks and lights on the rocks in the foreground to get an increased sense of distance and the green behind the trees is too strong – remember, green disappears quickly with distance.

If you gaze at your picture, you'll notice that the red tree on the left catches the eye more than any other part of the scene - not your intention I suspect!

One other point - try to avoid what I call pattern making in your shapes. Notice the tops of your trees. They are a replica of each other and are all forming a straight line–like soldiers standing at attention. Even if things like that do happen in nature, (unlikely ) we're best to rearrange them to avoid creating those patterns.


Student Painting

"Workshop 46" 12x12" Acrylic by Tammy Wolcott

This too is a very good effort–lots of imagination in the way the rocks have been presented. They lead us back into the painting very nicely. The trees however are quite a visual barrier - they virtually forbid us from going any further! (This is true for several of the paintings). In this situation, I would lower the trees and simplify them into a more general shape rather than a series of conspicuous points.

Overall, the sense of colour, particularly in the background, is very good.


Student Painting

"The Way to the Valley" 10.5x11" Acrylic by Nili Tunis

This is a bold approach! Lots of colour and strong lights and shadows. A nice arrangement of the elements in the painting with the path helping us to get to the background.

Two things to be aware of though - yellow is the first colour to fade with distance. The yellow slopes back behind the trees and the path as it turns the corner are shouting for attention - their colour is too strong. The other slight problem is that the tallest tree and the mountain top on the right are too close to the edge/ frame- they are creating 'tension points.' Best avoided.


Student Painting

"Explore III" 29x32" Oil on Canvas by Silke Sauritz

Well….This is certainly different Silke. A painting loaded with nice colour and ambience.

Two things that I need to mention. The natural landscape is normally random in its design - we may see things that look like each other but they are more the exception rather then the rule. If, when we design a painting, we repeat shapes or have equidistant elements or perhaps have intersecting edges all at one point, then we eliminate that sense of random. Our painting begins to look like an arrangement.

You will notice when you look at your painting that the rocks and the trees behind those rocks are arranged neatly in the corners of the painting, that the hills coming down from both the left and the right sides of your painting are almost exactly the same angle and form a very nice 'u' in the centre of the picture, and that the band of trees in the centre of the valley look very neatly arranged - a man-made plantation. Small points but they can so easily take away the feeling of reality in your painting.

Painting or sketching from nature outdoors can often help.


Student Painting

"The French Alps II" 8x10" Acrylic by Susan Burke

Your painting has good colour and tones Susan - good lights and darks that give a nice sense of sunlight. I like the blues that you have used to get a sense of distance into the mountains but you need to be careful when you apply the highlights to those distant peaks - they are too green for that distance. I like the colours used in your trees too but you may notice that the tops of the trees are In a straight line sloping down steeply to the left, as do the hills that we are standing on so that the painting has developed a strong feeling of sliding towards the bottom left corner.

When I look at your rocks, I get the feeling that you are painting what you know, not what you see. The shapes of your rocks and their whole character suggest that you are making them up. Probably the easiest way to solve that problem is to go outside, find some really nice boulders, and sketch and paint them. If you can get the choice of coastal and inland boulders, all the better!


Student Painting

"Alps" 40x40cm Oil on Canvas by Elena Sokolova

Another painting with heaps of colour - very bold! Nice free brushwork and well set out although the boulders could have been be moved off - centre a little.

However, (and this is possibly a personal thing), there is a point where a painting can become too 'chromatic,' too much of the complementaries - where the colours are all yelling for attention at once! At that point, the painting will have lost it's theme - the overall colour feeling that 'glues' it together.

More neutral colour with small areas of brilliance in the right places is often a better way. Even brilliant flowers look better with neutrals around them. Don't go overboard and make your work look depressed though!


- Many thanks to John Crump for his thoughtful critiques. You can see John's own paintings and teaching dvds at


My final painting


"The French Alps" 13 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson.

"The French Alps" 13 x 13" Acrylic on Canvas by Richard Robinson





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Painting Workshop 46
The French Alps

Ah, the French Alps in Summer! Magnifique! The hills are alive with the sound of cowbells and all we're missing is Heidi frolicking in the meadows. Follow me step by step as I show you the techniques I use to paint this beautiful alpine scene quickly and easily in acrylics. Painting a diffuse light effect, vast atmoshperic depth, dynamic brushwork and inventing convincing rocks are all demonstrated in the video.

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